Drag star Craig Whymark: “With dementia it’s the families that are suffering as well”

Watching his former England football international father Trevor Whymark live with dementia has been tough for former Girls Aloud backing dancer and drag performer Craig Whymark – aka Fanny Galore – but he’s determined to help other families find the support that they need.

Drag star Craig Whymark as Fanny Galore

Drag star Craig Whymark as Fanny Galore

Tell us a little about yourself Craig.

I danced for Girls Aloud on three or four of their UK tours and did lots of TV work then fell into drag, first in London, now I do lots of shows in Essex and Kent and Hertfordshire, as my alter ego Fanny Galore.

So, a very different type of performer to your father…

Yes. Dad was a professional footballer who played for Ipswich Town during the 70s. He was at the club when they won the FA Cup in 1978 but was unfortunately injured so missed the final at Wembley.

The highlight of his time there was when he scored all four goals in a UEFA Cup match against Lazio in 1973. He won his one England cap in 1977 then played for various other English clubs also for the Vancouver Whitecaps. When he finished playing, he worked as a driver.

Got questions you're scared to ask about dementia?

Questions you're afraid to ask about dementia

Before his dementia diagnosis in 2019, how was your dad’s health?

He’d always been physically fit and healthy, but we first noticed things weren’t quite right after he retired and then his mum passed away. Initially we thought the trauma of the grieving and the stress of dealing with his mum’s financial affairs had sparked a depression.

And when that depression persisted…

I just felt it wasn’t that simple, so we got him to see a psychologist, but dad came out of the appointment saying, ‘Everything’s fine. I’m alright,’ but retrospectively I think he was trying to protect us all from the truth, as a few months later it because apparent that the symptoms – like forgetting relatives’ names or where things were kept – were getting worse.

Presumably you sought a second opinion?

Yes. We made a GP’s appointment and dad did a memory test. At that time there was a lot of talk in the press about ex-footballers suffering from dementia brought on my heading the really heavy balls they used to play with, and heading was always dad’s trademark.

The balls were so hard and heavy in those days when they got wet – and he used to spend hours and hours practicing and just doing thousands of keepy uppy’s on his head. The GP referred dad to a specialist, who diagnosed him with early onset Alzheimer’s, when he was about 67.

Trevor Whymark

Trevor Whymark, Former Ipswich Town and England striker

How challenging was the diagnosis on your dad and your family?

The diagnosis was actually a bit of a relief as we knew what we had to deal with, but it was hugely upsetting as well as we knew what was to come. I’ve seen other people decline and pass away from dementia, so it’s inevitable that you’re going to think, ‘they’re going to forget everything and then they’re going to die,’ and you just think, ‘further down the line, how are they going to be?’

Five years on, how are things with your dad and how are you all coping?

We’re rallying around, but it’s hardest for my mum. Dad still knows all our names, but he repeats things. For instance, he’ll ask if the traffic was bad then two minutes later, he’ll ask the same thing again. Or he won’t know the name of a dish he hasn’t eaten for a while, or he’ll start cutting up his food in a quite a childlike manner.

Is he aware of his own condition?

He is and sometimes he’ll suddenly look really sad and say to mum, ‘I don’t think I’ve got long left, have I?’ but mum is brilliant, and she’ll just say, ‘Trev, none of us know how long we’ve got. Don’t be silly. What do you want for tea?’ and then he’ll snap out of that sadness.

Has he still got the majority of his personality?

I wouldn’t say the majority, no. Emotionally he’s different, but he does say to my mum every day, ‘I love you,’ and he still reads the newspaper everyday although when he’s finished, he’ll just pick it up and read it again. He’s on these slow-release Alzheimer’s patches, but we don’t know if they’ve had a significant impact.

Your dad was a huge Elvis fan. Does listening to old records help?

Definitely. He visited Gracelands when he was playing for Vancouver Whitecaps and loves Elvis, but we have to play the records for him as he always says, ‘I’d love to listen to these if I had a record player,’ and we say, ‘Dad, it’s here!’

How much support have your family had since your dad’s diagnosis?

Apart from the PFA, who paid for a few weeks of counselling for mum, we haven’t had any help, but for me personally doing lots of fundraising events has given me a focus. People don’t always realise that it’s the carers and the families behind the scenes that are suffering as well.

They’re the ones that often don’t get the chance to speak to anyone or know where to go, although we do have a carer now that comes in for a couple of hours a week to give mum some respite or a chance to do some shopping.

Craig Whymark with his mum and dad

Craig with his mum and dad

Which projects does the money that you raise help?

I’ve raised nearly £18,000 so far for the Alzheimer’s Society plus a couple of thousand for local projects too.

Has your family discussed your dad’s future care plan?

We have. My brother, me and my sister are on a WhatsApp group, so we get to say things without upsetting my mum, and we have one with my mum too, so we share dad’s appointments and stuff, but to be honest we are living in the moment.

We know that eventually there’s going to be a time when dad might have to go into a home and when he doesn’t know who we are, and although I speak to mum and dad every day, I know it’s hardest for mum.

She told me that she gets up at six am every day and goes downstairs and just cries because she’s scared of what’s to come. Then she has to just turn it on and get dad up and say, ‘Come of Trev, off we go.’ It’s incredibly hard for her.

Because of Alzheimer’s inevitable progression, are you embracing the time you are spending with your dad even more than usual?

Absolutely. We know what’s to come so we just want to try to spend as much time with him as we can.

How to help a loved one living with dementia?

How to support someone living with dementia

How difficult have you found it to navigate the care system since your dad’s diagnosis?

There’s been very little follow up since his diagnosis. If people have cancer, there are regular follow up, but it feels like we’ve been left to our own devices. Like, ‘have a look at this pamphlet,’ or, ‘Go there,’ but apart from the beginning of Covid we haven’t had people coming round offering any help to mum.

We found a carer ourselves and we’ve had to navigate the whole power of attorney financial situation ourselves too. It would be a lot easier if there was a more organised structure. It feels like mum needs a lot more than she’s getting, but we have to find it.

It’s a huge pressure on everyone. Are you getting any respite?

My respite is actually on stage as Fanny Galore. It raises my spirits to see everyone else smiling.

What would your message be for other families dealing with a more recent dementia diagnosis?

I wish that at the beginning we would have got more support from going to a local dementia cafe and surrounding ourselves with other like-minded people that are going through it.

It’s also important not to feel ashamed about it, but I think with increased conversations about mental health that is becoming less of an issue now. The most important thing is to be able to talk about it.

Craig Whymark and parents

Craig and his parents Trevor and Rita

To support Craig’s fundraising efforts visit https://www.justgiving.com/page/craig-whymark-1681652220079