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The man who set up an LGBTQ+ dementia group in honour of his late husband

When his husband started suffering from a form of dementia, Mike realised that those affected by the disease in the LGBTQ+ community sorely needed a group that would stand up for them

By Dale Fox

Mike Parish holding up a picture of his husband Tom
Mike Parish holds a photo of his husband Tom (Image: Markus Bidaux/Attitude; Design: Richard Burn/Attitude)

It was 1975 when a nervous 20-year-old Mike Parish found himself sitting on a sofa surrounded by strangers at a Gay Icebreakers tea party in London. He’d spotted the group’s number by chance on a sticker while travelling down a Tube station escalator and, after calling them, mustered up the courage to attend in the hope of discovering more about himself. Little did he know then how fateful that decision would be.

“Sitting at the other end of the sofa was somebody who leaned forward to pick his coffee up at the same time as me, and he smiled at me, and I smiled back. That was my future husband. That was my lovely, wonderful Tom,” reminisces Mike, a 2024 PEUGEOT Attitude Pride Awards winner.

“We didn’t try to be affectionate because we knew that would attract attention”

From that fortuitous beginning, Mike and Tom embarked on an extraordinary 47-year relationship based on love, devotion, and an unbreakable bond. But like so many LGBTQ+ people of that era, their journey was also one of hostility and prejudice, as they faced the challenges of existing in a society that was not always accepting or understanding. “I could write a book on all the negative things that happened to us that had nothing to do with us, other than being the ‘wrong’ sexuality,” Mike shares candidly.

Mike Parish holding an Attitude Pride Award
Mike recalls fondly the many wonderful years he and Tom spent together (Image: Markus Bidaux)

Even within the confines of their own families, the pair struggled to find the support and acceptance that many take for granted. Mike recalls excitedly sharing the news of his blossoming relationship with Tom with his mum: “She very quickly said, ‘Well, you don’t have to force it down my throat.’ When my brother came and said, ‘I’ve met this wonderful girl and she’s lovely and we’re going and doing this and that,’ her response was the complete opposite.”

This treatment extended to the outside world, where the couple were hyper-aware of their actions in public spaces. “We didn’t try to be affectionate because we knew that would attract attention,” Mike explains. “People got attacked in the street because they were gay.”

Despite the challenges, Mike and Tom’s love only grew stronger with each passing decade. They built a life together filled with laughter and adventure, with Mike working for the London Fire Brigade and Tom as a pensions manager for the NHS.

“Having read about how the abuse levels of people in care who are LGBTQ+ were phenomenal … I could not put him through that”

But in 2008, their lives took a devastating turn when Tom began exhibiting signs of cognitive decline. After a series of medical appointments and tests, he was eventually diagnosed with a rare form of dementia called progressive supranuclear palsy, which left him unable to work. Faced with the prospect of placing his husband in care, Mike instead made the decision to take early retirement and dedicate himself wholly to Tom’s wellbeing.

“Having read about how the abuse levels of people in care who are LGBTQ+ were phenomenal … I could not put him through that.”

Mike Parish holding a photo of his husband Tom
Mike and Tom (pictured inset) were together for almost 50 years (Image: Markus Bidaux)

As Mike sought out support and resources to help him navigate this new chapter in their lives, he was dismayed to find a glaring lack of inclusive and affirming spaces for LGBTQ+ couples affected by dementia. “It was exceedingly heteronormative,” he recalls of one support group he attended with Tom. “Every time we went, there’d be new people, and I’d have to say, ‘This is my husband’ over and over again and feel like I was having to make an excuse for it.”

And even in public, the pair received verbal abuse when Mike was holding Tom’s hand “to stop him falling over because he had dementia”.

“[LGBTQ+ people with dementia] are vulnerable and have been completely cut off and forgotten about”

Recognising an urgent need for change, Mike co-founded the LGBTQ+ Dementia Advisory Group in 2022, and it is for this that he is receiving a PEUGEOT Attitude Pride Award. The group’s mission is to provide support, resources and advocacy for LGBTQ+ individuals and their partners who are living with dementia, ensuring that their unique needs and experiences are recognised.

“There are probably 70,000 people with dementia who identify as LGBTQ+ in the country,” Mike points out. “What’s being done to address their needs? We’ve got to change that. They are vulnerable and have been completely cut off and forgotten about.”

Mike Parish
“There wasn’t a bad bone in his body,” Mike says of Tom (Image: Markus Bidaux)

With unwavering commitment, Mike cared for Tom at home until he passed away peacefully in 2022. As he reflects on their life together, Mike’s voice fills with emotion.

“He was a loving, generous, kind, fun, gentle, loyal, inspiring human being,” says Mike of his beloved Tom, his eyes welling up as he remembers his husband. “There wasn’t a bad bone in his body.”

Though devastated by his loss, Mike draws strength from the love he and Tom shared and the memories they created together. And in Tom’s memory, he continues the vital work of advocating for LGBTQ+ people affected by dementia, ensuring that their relationships are respected, and their voices heard.

This feature appears in Issue 359 of Attitude magazine, which is available to order online here and alongside 15 years of back issues on the free Attitude app.

Joel Kim Booster on the cover of Attitude Issue 359
Joel Kim Booster on the cover of Attitude Issue 359 (Image: Attitude)