The plot will come to an end on Friday (7 April) when Ashley dies at home, after spending his final hours surrounded by his loved ones, and representatives from the Alzheimer’s Society and MHA, who provide care homes to thousands of older people, have explained how the storyline has impacted real people.
Speaking at a press event, Kathryn Smith, the Alzheimer’s Society’s director of operations, noted that this is the first time a British soap has featured early onset dementia.
She told The Huffington Post UK and other reporters: “Dementia is often associated with aging and of course, age is a risk factor with dementia, but there are very different issues for people with early onset dementia, such as having a job, and young children and partners.
“This [storyline] has been really beneficial in helping to highlight this. One of the very big myths of dementia is that it’s a very natural part of aging and it isn’t.”
Kathryn also highlighted that many members of the public have contacted the charity after seeing Ashley’s struggle, and continued: “We’ve had an incredible response to the storyline through our helpline and through Talking Point, which is a website that serves as a support function.
“And even just on Facebook, we’ve had people recognising and saying ‘that’s what my mum did’, or ‘this is what happened to me’ and getting support. It’s been really, really phenomenal.
“Obviously, ‘Emmerdale’ has a very large viewing population and it’s also reaching out to the kind of demographic that are most likely to be affected by dementia.
“People have been able to recognise themselves and know that they’re not alone, and there is support out there, and to know where they can get advice from.”
MHA’s regional director Linda Zaidi added: “It’s been tremendously helpful and John [Middleton, who plays Ashley] visited one of our homes as well.
“Most of the residents are avid Emmerdale fans and even more so now, they feel, ‘This is our soap opera’.
“We’ve had nothing but positive comments, and are hugely privileged to be involved in it, and it has been very sensitively portrayed and as you say, hit home with a lot of our residents and also their families.”
While working on the storyline, actor John Middleton also learned of just how many people suffer from the disease, which is characterised by the loss of memory.
Speaking at the same press event, he said: “There are 850,000 people diagnosed with the disease at the moment in the UK, which is an extraordinary amount. And then around them is a family, friends, colleagues, ex-colleagues so there’s millions and millions of people.
“I’m told by 2015, two million people will be diagnosed with the condition, and I’m told that’s actually a conservative estimation. The good news is we’re living longer, but the bad news is in the past we’d have died with this disease and now we’re dying of this disease.
“This is going to be the biggest health issue the western world will deal with this century.”
The storyline will mark the end of two decades on the soap for John, and following Ashley’s death, viewers will see Laurel planning the perfect send-off for the former vicar.
The show’s producer Iain MacLeod recently discussed this week’s episodes, explaining why it was important not to sensationalise the character’s death.
Catch up on all the latest soap news and spoilers here.