Mum was more than a "wee woman with dementia"
Seven years ago Tommy Whitelaw was travelling the world as head of global merchandising operations for some of the biggest names in the music industry, including U2, Elton John, Kylie Minogue and the Spice Girls. Then in 2007 a visit home to Glasgow to see his mum, Joan, changed his life forever. Joan was diagnosed with vascular dementia, and Tommy ended up moving into the spare room and becoming his mother's full-time carer until her death in 2012.
Tommy has now dedicated himself to raising awareness of the issues and challenges faced by people with dementia and those who care for them. During this year's Dying Matters Awareness Week in May, Tommy gave a powerful and moving speech on the difficulties carers face and the isolation they too often feel at the Make a Difference Conference at Birmingham City football ground, which was jointly run by Dying Matters and the Heart of England Foundation Trust. He told the audience: "The loneliness started on the day of my mum's diagnosis. We were told someone would be in touch, but nobody was ever really in touch. And that set the theme and the standard for the next five years."
In a speech that left many members of the audience visibly moved, Tommy went on to say that his mother would quite often be described as "the wee woman with dementia". "But," he said, "That wee woman was Joan Whitelaw: a mother, a sister, a daughter."
Watch Tommy's speech
Tommy's Story, by NHS Media Hub
Tommy and his mum's distressing experiences (once, in an act of desperation, he turned up at a health centre with Joan and pleaded for help, only to be sent away with an 0800 number scribbled on a post-it note) inspired him to start a blog, which has subsequently won several awards. He also launched Tommy on Tour, during which he travelled across Scotland, mostly by foot, to share experiences with other carers and to present their letters to MSPs at the Scottish Parliament. In 2012 the Scottish Government awarded Tommy two years funding to work on a new campaign, the 'Dementia Carer Voices' project, which provides a platform for carers to share their experiences of caring for a loved one with dementia, with a view to raising awareness among health and social care professionals and members of the public.
Following Tommy's speech, Dawn Chaplin, Head Nurse for Patient Experience and Clinical Dean for Nursing at the Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust, and Helen Mallard, matron of Ward 30 at Heartlands Hospital, informed the audience that they had dedicated the Reminiscence Room in Ward 30 to Joan Whitelaw, and unveiled a plaque in her memory. An emotional Tommy responded: "Not many people asked what my mum's name was and this is a lovely tribute to have her name up there."
Dying Matters: Advice and resources for carers
Dying Matters: Information for carers