This star's illness has sparked huge interest in dementia

This star's illness has sparked huge interest in dementia. Stock image.

Sometimes it takes a celebrity to be diagnosed with a disease for the illness to be talked about in the open. Remember when Michael J Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s? It was only then the whole world took notice of the disease and realised that it can happen to anyone. Let’s not forget the moment Olivia Newton John was diagnosed with cancer.This led the celebrity to start the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute which has now become the first laboratory in Australia to be NATA accredited for a breakthrough technology to perform blood tests for melanoma patients to detect and analyse cancer genes. This new approach is already saving lives. Latest, former Monty Python actor Terry Jones was diagnosed with dementia and this has prompted an extraordinary outpouring of support and interest in the illness.

The 74-year-old’s colleague Michael Palin, said, “The response was not just great sympathy for Terry and his family, but great interest in dementia,” Palin said. “So many people from all over the world saying my mother, my grandmother, my sister, my aunt, we’ve all suffered from this so what can we learn from this. That really surprised me and everyone I know.”

Palin was interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, along with Michael Parkinson, by the actor Carey Mulligan, who guest-edited Tuesday’s edition and focused on dementia, because her grandmother Nancy is also affected, reports Guardian. Many believe that such interviews provide an avenue for the illness to be discussed, creating awareness about it and hopefully new funding opportunities.

Jones directed the Monty Python films The Life of Brian and Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, and co-directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail with Terry Gilliam. After Jones’s dementia was announced, Palin wrote on Facebook that the impact of the disease on his friend and colleague of more than 50 years had been “painful to watch”.

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The Monty Python. Back row: Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam Front row: Terry Jones, John Cleese, Michael Palin. Photo via Wikipedia.
The Monty Python. Back row: Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam. Front row: Terry Jones, John Cleese, Michael Palin. Photo via Wikipedia.

Jones’s illness, which was diagnosed as primary progressive aphasia, had been known to friends and family for some time but was kept from public knowledge until September this year.

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According to Palin, the disease is taking away Jones’s ability to communicate. During the last Monty Python live shows at the O2 in London in 2014, Jones had to use an autocue for some sections, such as the Four Yorkshiremen sketch, although for other parts, such as the Penguin on the TV sketch, he was still word-perfect, Palin said.

“For someone who was so articulate, who loved words and jokes and all that sort of thing, to be deprived of speech, it’s a terrible thing to happen,” said Palin.

“But I feel, well, Terry’s still there – you can’t say because he can’t speak, he can’t feel things, and in fact when I’m with Terry there’s an emotional response. He recognises me and gives me a hug … We see him noticing things.”

Jones can still surprise people, Palin said, describing having lunch with him and friends at the pub: “He doesn’t say very much until it comes to ordering the wine, when some really fluent Portuguese or whatever comes out,” he said.

Music and nostalgia are his favourite things

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Jones enjoys watching musicals from the 1920s and 1930s, Palin said. “It’s music and it’s kind of nostalgia and he loves watching those: he will watch them time and again and I just find it incredibly touching.”

Parkinson told Mulligan about his mother’s experiences of dementia and how music could comfort her. During one visit, he took her to his car and put on a Frank Sinatra CD. “She sang every lyric – every single one. She didn’t know who I was, but she knew who Sinatra was,” he said.

On the programme, they talked about the challenges dementia poses for friends and family. “It’s very, very hard, I think, to know exactly how to be with them and how to relax with them,” Palin said. “I think he [Jones] likes having people there, but if nothing comes back it’s quite difficult and I can see people saying, ‘Oh well, I’ve done my bit, that’s it, I’m going off.’”

Parkinson said: “There’s a tendency for some people to say, if she doesn’t recognise me then as far as I’m concerned they are dead … That does happen. I just hope to god when that happens to you, you don’t feel that kind of rejection.”

Watch Monty Python’s ‘The Flying Circus’ here…

Do you know anyone who is living with dementia? Is it fair to count on celebrities to push for medical advancement?