THANKS to the Strictly Oxford dance contest, the coffers of Vale House have been swelled by an incredible £30,000. But with £1.5m still needed to pay for the building, the Last Tango could be a way off.

FIVE years ago, Vale House manager Tricia O’Leary could only daydream about building a new dementia care home for Oxford.

She recalls: “I would chat with Robin Edwards, an architect whose mother was in Vale House in Botley, about how wonderful it would be to have twice the amount of beds we had, along with huge, sweeping corridors and lots of light.”

Five years on, Mrs O’Leary’s dreams have come true in the shape of Vale House’s reincarnation – a 40-bed, state-of-the-art £5m premises in Sandford-on-Thames, which took 18 months to build and opened last year.

She continues: “I managed to persuade our directors we could do it and Robin Edwards actually went on to design this home.

“We have our wide, sweeping corridors and huge amounts of light, plus calming wooden furniture, memory boxes for our residents’ keepsakes, the most beautiful gardens which are now in bloom. And we now care for twice as many people suffering from dementia, and their families too.”

The only fly in the ointment, it seems, is the £1.5m now needed to repay the bank.

“We are in our new building and the fundraising that got us here has been immense, including Strictly, but there is still a long way to go,” concedes Mrs O’Leary. “The whole project cost just over £5m.

“Thankfully our hard-working trustees ensured we had £1.5m in the bank and our capital appeal has already raised £2m.

“But we still have £1.5m to repay to the bank and that will be harder.

“People are very generous, but paying off a bank loan doesn’t have quite the same appeal as asking people to help you build a place like this!

“We need to show people that while we are ‘in’, we still need their help. But we can do it with their help no matter how small – from coffee mornings and fetes, to people’s legacies.”

A not-for-profit home, Vale House was set up in 1990 in Botley by a group of volunteers who wanted to provide nursing care for people profoundly affected by dementia – a relatively unknown disease at the time.

Doubling bed numbers from 20 to 40 has meant doubling staff and Mrs O’Leary said she is proud of the way all her nurses have embraced the home’s continuing ethos of respecting patients’ adult status – “seeing the person, not the illness”.

In 2011, 2,886 people were diagnosed with dementia in Oxfordshire, with 4,741 others as yet undiagnosed.

The county’s current count of 7,500 dementia sufferers is set to rise to 8,600 by 2015 and beyond as the country’s ageing population grows.

Just last month, Oxfordshire County Council became the largest recipient of a £50m new Government pilot fund to improve conditions for increasing numbers of dementia patients.

The £1.5m refurbishment plans will provide calmer surroundings for dementia patients and will include redecorating rooms, installing new furniture and creating quiet spaces in homes and hospital wards.

“Thirty years ago, a lot of people with dementia might have ended up in psychiatric hospitals,” said Mrs O’Leary.

“But while public awareness of dementia has got better, few still realise just how intensive the care need is and the strain put upon their loved ones.

“Some sufferers don’t know how to sit down at a table to eat any more, and they can no longer wash themselves. This a very labour-intensive type of nursing and each family pays £888 a week for their care here.

“Some qualify for state help, but many are paying out of their savings.”

While care remains paramount, finding £1.5m as soon as possible remains high on the list of priorities at Vale House. But Mrs O’Leary believes the home and its supporters will prevail.

“I know we will do it somehow,” she said.

“This place belongs to the people of Oxford – it is their loved ones, friends and neighbours we are caring for and everyone wants it to be the best it can be.”

Vale House was the final resting place of writer Iris Murdoch, who died there in 1999. Her husband, Professor John Bayley said: “Her last days in that strangely happy place had been so serene that it was impossible to feel sad at the time.”

  • For information on how to support Vale House, contact Sandy Briscoe on 01865 718467 or email

Strictly Oxford

Strictly Oxford, the city’s own take on the popular television dance contest, has supported Vale House for two years and was won this year by Karl Leitelmayer, a senior director with Lloyds Bank.
Competitors also included Shamus Donald, regional managing director of Newsquest Oxfordshire, which publishes the Oxford Mail and The Oxford Times.

Power of music

MUSIC is important at Vale House, as two members of the City of Oxford Orchestra have found.
Orchestra chairman Lindsay Sandison and principal oboist Andrew Knights visit Vale House once a fortnight to run their music therapy programme Music Unlocking Memories (MUM).
Miss Sandison said: “We distribute small percussion instruments, like tambourines and castanets, and Andrew plays a backing track and plays his oboe or sax, while I sing and dance – and it is almost like someone has turned a light on in many of the residents’ heads.”
She added: “We have one lady, a nun, who seemed very sad to start with, but knows every word of our songs and now whistles along like a thrush.”

A calm and soothing haven

Christopher Lethbridge, 84, from Bampton, placed his wife Jill, 90, in Vale House nine years ago.
He said: “It is devastating to be faced with the thought of putting your wife (or any relative) in a care home. But caring for Jill was taking a serious toll on me and that was no good for her.
“From the outset, my two children and I liked Vale House. And the new building here in Sandford really is first class.
“But what makes it so very special for relatives like me is the care and attention from the staff. It is so calm and stress-free that it helps relatives like me get over their feelings of guilt because we know our loved ones are receiving excellent care in beautiful surroundings.”

Key to kindness is to step into 'their world'

Staff nurse Val Watchorn, from Eynsham, has been caring for residents at Vale House for 20 years.
She said: “Caring for a person with dementia requires getting to know everything about them, so you can look after them in ‘their world’ rather than yours.
“It might sound strange, but a lot of people here will tell you that this is a happy place.”

  • Vale House chef Jackie Kola, 50, from Blackbird Leys, Oxford, has given up sequins and is now back in uniform after a six-week stint competing in Strictly Oxford. The mum-of-two said: “It was amazing fun and a lot of hard work, and I’m thrilled to say I have already raised £700 on my Just Giving page for Vale House.”

Life sentence for a family

Vale House has its own family support worker, counsellor Jen Courtney, 42.
She said: “I haven’t heard of a similar service at any other home, but to us it is vitally important to look after our residents’ families, as dementia is a life sentence for a whole family.” Ms Courtney offers spouses, children, friends and even grandchildren the opportunity to tell her about their loved ones, how they once were and the things they loved – details the home can then use to best care for their needs.
She said: “All of the relatives here are bereaved, in that they have lost the person they knew. But their loved one is still here and in a kind of limbo. It is very hard for them.
“Despite that, it’s a strangely happy place where we are all united through this terrible illness.”