“I am terrified of the day my husband forgets me.”
Those were the heart-wrenching words that brought tears to the council chamber and put a human face on budget cuts.
In an emotional speech, loving wife Helen Plaskitt, spoke of her devastation at Kirklees Council’s proposal to close the dementia care home where her husband John lives.
Dad-of-two John, diagnosed with early onset dementia aged just 57, is a former teacher, who taught geography and PE at Almondbury and Shelley high schools and Mirfield Free Grammar School. He played rugby for Emley Moor and coached under 16s in Huddersfield.
Helen, speaking at a full meeting of Kirklees Council, had many people in tears after one of the most emotional and heartfelt pleas ever heard in Huddersfield Town Hall.
Referring to the council’s plans to close Claremont House in Heckmondwike and Castle Grange in Newsome, Helen held up a happy photograph of herself and her husband from seven years ago.
The same image was on her T-shirt but Helen said: “He doesn’t look like that now. I haven’t brought a picture of him now because it wouldn’t be dignified for him.”
Surrounded by three other campaigners for moral support, Helen openly wept as she told councillors her story.
“My husband has been living at Claremont for nearly two years,” she said. “When John was originally diagnosed with early onset dementia aged 57 he bravely took me around nearly 20 different care homes knowing through experience what was likely to be coming our way, desperately trying to prepare me.
“Of all the homes we visited Claremont was his choice. The state of some of the others we visited was heartbreaking.
“By the end of our tour we were both extremely frightened. Only Claremont and the staff there were able to reassure us.
“He is my husband, a father to two boys, a step-father to two others. He is loved by me and his family and we desperately miss everything that dementia stole from us and is continuing to steal from us.
“Moving John to Claremont nearly destroyed me. I cried myself to sleep for three months. I noticed John’s anxiety still every time I visited him and every time I tried to leave him.
“In that first three months he stopped talking. He paced. He showed me – the person who knows him best – the toll that this change had wrought upon him.
“And I – his wife, the person who loved him – was guilt-ridden at what I’d done. But after this, things settled. Slowly, slowly and emerging from a wreckage – it was a wreckage – we both found ourselves – our new selves.
“Today I visit John two or three times a week. I can take him out now. I take him on day trips. I take him on regular outings to the pub for a pint.
“We visited Scarborough in the summer to watch Yorkshire play Kent. What makes it possible for me to do is that he is always, always happy to go home. His home. Claremont.
“Most weeks we go to our home in Birstall. He always wants to get up after he has his cup of tea and cake and go back to his home. Claremont is his home now.
“His anxiety is gone now and so is mine. This is because of the consistent high levels of care that he receives each day at Claremont. The familiarity, the routine, the regular staff faces who know him so well.
“I am so proud that my husband is cared for by the local authority with such high standards. Such high standards.
“Unfortunately, I will never get back – he will never get back – what we lost moving him from home to Claremont. That transition, that change. Those first few months, it was devastating for us. His voice has gone, it’s gone forever.”
Helen referred to a council report which warned of the potential for “short-term negative impacts to residents.” Helen said she knew of those impacts and the long-term ones. John lost his ability to speak.
“His lack of speech is permanent,” she said, urging councillors to share the council’s assessments on short and long-term impacts on residents.
The report also pointed out the financial costs of moving residents further away from their families.
Helen added: “I visit my husband two to four times a week and it’s manageable because it’s a 10-minute drive but it’s not just financial, it’s distance.
“This isn’t a swimming pool. This is a life. It’s distance and time as this determines how often we can visit our loved ones. We are all aware of how rapidly memory deteriorates if familiar routines and faces are not kept up and seen with dementia sufferers.
“I am terrified of the day my husband forgets me. Don’t hasten this by moving him away from me or by changing his home again.”
Sobbing, Helen asked councillors: “What accountability are you willing to take for the decline of my husband’s health? And Agnes’ and Dorothy’s and Barbara’s and Susan’s – my husband’s friends. His new family. Carol’s, Michael’s.
“I absolutely appreciate the financial difficulties you are under. I am a card-holding Labour Party member but please find another way.
“The impact of closure for residents and families – the husbands, wives, the daughters, the sons, the grandchildren – it’s going to be immense.”
At the end of Helen’s speech, councillors and others in the council chamber stood to applaud.
After a short break for Helen to compose herself, the council’s Cabinet member for health and social care Clr Jackie Ramsay told her: “We can all feel the pain you described of losing the John that you knew to this terrible disease.
“I am sure I am not the only one who could feel your grief as you spoke so bravely.”
Clr Ramsay said she and council officers were meeting families at Claremont House and Castle Grange on Monday and Tuesday next week. A 12-week consultation is underway.
Kirklees Council is having to make budget savings of £47 million ahead of the next financial year and is proposing to close the two dementia care homes, three leisure centres, Cleckheaton Town Hall and Batley Library.
Clr Ramsay told Helen: “I can’t not mention why we are having to make such choices. I fully appreciate council finances are absolutely not a priority for you or your families at this time but, unfortunately, they have to be for us.”
The council meeting also heard deputations from campaigners against the closures of Colne Valley Leisure Centre in Slaithwaite and Deighton Sports Arena along with campaign group Enough is Enough.