Like most couples, Annabelle and Bill Gray celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary in style – flowing champagne, fantastic music, glamorous guests and all.

The difference was the venue. This party took place in Ailsa Hospital in Ayr, where Mr Gray was being supported through his journey with dementia.

“If he couldn’t come home to me, then I would take home to him,” explains Mrs Gray. 

“We had brilliant times, birthday and anniversary celebrations, you name it. I spent the days with him – we ate together, went for walks together, or we’d order a takeaway and sit and watch Strictly, just like any other couple would.”

Mrs Gray’s innovative “home to hospital” approach to caring for her husband is being recognised today by the Alzheimer Scotland Centre for Policy and Practice (ASCPP) at the University of the West of Scotland (UWS).

She will receive the centre’s 2019 celebration medal in recognition of her contribution to dementia care and her inspirational work with students and medical staff.

“Annabelle is a strong advocate for ensuring that families and carers are pivotal to the decision-making process,” explains Susan Holland, Alzheimer Scotland dementia nurse consultant at NHS Ayrshire and Arran. 

“Her positivity and ongoing dedication to improving dementia care is unwavering and her support over the years has been invaluable.”

Mrs Gray, who is a hairdresser, and her husband, who worked in management for a pharmaceutical company, met at their local golf club, setting up home together in Prestwick in 1997.

Mr Gray was diagnosed with dementia in 2003, just a few weeks before the couple got married.

After the initial shock, they were determined to deal with the diagnosis with as much positivity as they could.

“Bill had an incredibly positive attitude, he had great determination and a fabulous sense of humour,” recalls Mrs Gray. “He was always a vivacious and charismatic man and that never left him. As far as we could, we just tried to carry on as normal.”

Eventually, Mr Gray  required more specialist care than he could receive at home.

“When he first went into hospital, it was traumatic for us both,” she explains, quietly. “I was bereft. But gradually, we made it work for us.

“Yes, that did mean I challenged some of the guidelines. But the staff were very supportive and understood what I was doing and why I was doing it.”

Mrs Gray’s approach challenged many of the traditional boundaries of in-patient care, as it was based around a model of flexible day and night hospital visiting, the maintenance of home life routines and activities and the active involvement of family as equal partners in care. 

“It helped us to stay connected,” she says. “I think a lot of people feel that when their loved one goes into hospital, they have to ‘hand over’ that person, or leave him or her behind, but it’s not the case.

“Bill always saw us as a couple – he recognised my voice, and the staff told me he was generally calmer when I was there. We spent as much time together as we could, and when I left, I would never say I was going ‘home’ – always to the shops, or to see my dad, or to work. Home was where Bill was, where we were together.”

Mrs  Gray accepts every carer’s role is different. “This model of care may not work for everyone,” she adds. 

“When you see your loved one change, it can be hard not to take it personally. But if someone breaks both legs, you don’t expect them to walk. When a bit of someone’s brain is broken, we shouldn’t expect them to act and react the way they have always done. It is the illness causing them to act differently.”

Mr Gray died in April last year and since then, Mrs Gray has worked closely with NHS Ayrshire and Arran and the mental health lecturing team at UWS to help support and inspire students interested in dementia care.  

In 2013 she started to share her story with third year mental health student nurses, giving them a greater understanding of the carer’s role.

“I’m really overwhelmed by this award,” says Mrs Gray. 

“If I can sow a seed in the minds of the staff nurses of the future, that this approach to care might help in the long run, that slight changes or new ways of thinking might be beneficial, then I’ll feel like I have made a difference.”

In the last few years of his life, Bill was able to return home once a month.

“That was wonderful,” smiles Annabelle. “I loved those days, when we’d sit together and I’d give him his tea, we’d watch some telly and have a glass of wine – I miss those days so much.”

She adds: “That’s the message I want to send – it’s not always bad. There were brilliant days, there were lovely days, sometimes with others at celebrations, when the champagne was flowing – and sometimes just the two of us. Those are the ones I will always remember.”