Tony Parkes loves to go walking, here he is with with his daughter Natalie
It was the decision that Natalie Parkes-Thompson – the daughter of Blackburn Rovers legend Tony Parkes – always dreaded most.
Her father had moved in when her mother was in the final stages of terminal cancer – “he was never the most domesticated, and it was her dying wish that we wouldn’t leave him on his own” – but then dementia took hold.
Natalie had already given up her job as a primary schoolteacher so that she could look after both her two-year-old daughter and her father but, with lockdown accelerating his condition and a second baby girl arriving this year, an inevitable but still utterly heartbreaking decision could no longer be delayed.
“I had to make a choice,” she says. “My dad is now in a residential setting. I can’t meet his needs with two children under three. You can’t do both with Alzheimer’s. You feel like you are failing on both levels. And I didn’t realise how much of a decline my dad would experience in lockdown. He would be up ridiculously early knocking on the doors to get us up.
“He could leave the front door open with a toddler who could run into the road. Or leave the hob on in the middle of the night. It was the danger aspect in keeping everybody safe. It’s an awful choice to have to make. I was at the end of my tether. I love them all.”
Natalie’s voice falters as she completes the sentence, but she wants to speak out so that people also understand the human toll that football’s dementia crisis is taking on the families of former players.
Parkes (left) celebrates Blackburn Rovers' Premier League title with Kenny Dalglish and Ray Harford
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
“You see the pictures of players and coaches, as they were, in their prime,” she says. “You don’t get to see what the families deal with on a daily basis. My dad has changed from being a happy, down-to-earth fun guy to someone who is very needy, cries all the time and very anxious. But he’s not necessarily aware of what is going on. You can have a conversation and five minutes later he has totally forgotten.
“A lot of these ex-professionals don’t have any money behind them now. What about players in League One or Two? Or in the grass roots? What support are they getting? My dad’s playing career was ended by a broken leg but he was lucky – he went to Blackburn.”
After 12 years as a player at Ewood Park during the 1970s and 1980s, Parkes became known as “Mr Blackburn Rovers” during a spell on the coaching staff that spanned almost two decades and six – yes, six – spells as caretaker manager. He was also Kenny Dalglish’s assistant during the greatest period in the club’s modern history, culminating with winning the Premier League in 1995. A distinguished coaching career ended in 2009 following a short spell at Blackpool and it was about three years ago – when her father was just 68 – that Natalie began noticing worrying changes.
“He was doing things like calling an orange a banana or walking into a room and then forgetting why,” she says. “You wondered if it was the ageing process but then he started withdrawing from anything social. He would go to the home matches every week at Blackburn but then suddenly stopped wanting to go.
“He was avoiding phone calls and I think that was because he was struggling to keep up with what people were saying. He would follow us around the house, all day, every day. You get a grip of one thing and then you wake up the next day and it’s, ‘Where did that behaviour come from? What does that mean?’ It’s so much more than a memory issue. It’s the behavioural change. You can trigger memories but once vocabulary and understanding has gone, the independence has gone.”
Parkes had initially resisted seeing a doctor but, says Natalie, it “got to a point where I couldn’t leave it” and a diagnosis was made. “It was pretty much, ‘Your dad has Alzheimer’s, goodbye’. There was no conversation about whether you can take on the caring responsibilities. No guidance or support unless you go looking for it. I took it all on myself.”
Former professional footballers are more than five times more likely to die of Alzheimer’s and Natalie is no doubt that his career is the explanation.
“Definitely,” she says. “He was heading a ball from a child all the way through to teaching people when he was coaching. They would play and train in the most horrendous conditions. The attitude when he played was that you just got on with it. He absolutely loved what he did – but there are so many ex-professionals ending up like this.”
Natalie resigned from her full-time teaching job last Christmas and, with daily walks, a Sporting Memories group in Leyland and football matches on the television, a routine had been established. Then came Covid-19, her new baby and the various national lockdowns. She says that he is being “really well cared for” and he has continued with his Sporting Memories and “Remember the Rovers” sessions online. But the family have had to stop their window visits and, although she would like one day to get him back home, cannot see how that will be feasible.
“The window visits might work for some but, for us, it was just horrendous,” she says. “He couldn’t understand why we couldn’t hug and it was too upsetting. We can FaceTime. I speak to him every day. We have the same conversations: about the weather and what he has eaten, and he will always say that he has eaten a cheese sandwich.”
Like so many of the football families impacted by dementia, Natalie would like to see a series of simple changes to reduce exposure to heading outside of match days. She has been in touch with the Professional Footballers’ Association – her sense is it deals with requests on a case-by-case basis – and she would like to see comprehensive support for all former players and their families.
“It needs to be across the board,” she says. “ It’s hard to think of all the many people we don’t know about, who have kept this private and are suffering. Everyone has a different battle – but it’s easier to ignore if we stay silent.”