"I'm worried I'll eventually get Alzheimer's like Mum and Dad"
Five years ago, Fiona Phillips buckled under the strain of juggling a career, family and looking after her parents. Gabrielle Fagan discovers how the TV presenter transformed her life
Most women make 'to do' lists and TV presenter Fiona Phillips is no exception. But there's nothing routine about the task she confesses to putting off completing.
"I need to sort out an action plan that can be used if I 'disappear'," she says, referring to her fear that one day she may be sucked away from her current life by Alzheimer's, the terrifying illness which killed her mother, Amy, and father, Phil.
Phillips feels an ever-pressing need to take the precaution of making plans, so her husband, Martin Frizell, and her two sons, Nathaniel (16) and Mackenzie (12) are not burdened if she becomes ill. At 53, she's now the same age as her mother when her symptoms of confusion started to become apparent.
"Of course I fear inheriting the disease with my family history, and I sometimes wake up in the night feeling anxious and worried about it. My parents were relatively young when they got it; my mum was in her early 50s, although at the time, we just put it down to her being eccentric. My dad was in his early 60s when he began behaving oddly," says this warm, chatty, glamorous woman, who recently stood in for Lorraine Kelly on her breakfast show and is determinedly stoic, rather than self-pitying, about the possibility of such a scenario.
"Although it looms large in my life and I do find myself checking for signs - like setting myself little tests and wondering if I am being more forgetful than normal - I try to keep it in proportion - otherwise it would rule my life.
"It's when my two brothers and I get together that we talk about the likelihood of it, although perhaps for me, it's more real, because I did most of the caring for our parents. I still have nightmares about what they went through.
"It was heartbreaking. The end is slow and undignified, and to add to the pain and stress, it's enormously difficult to get proper care." Phillips has frequently campaigned for the need for improved care for Alzheimer's sufferers, support for families and more funding for research into the condition.
Although some years ago she had a genetic test to find out the likelihood of her falling victim to it, the presenter's never returned for the results. "If a doctor told me I had an 80% chance of getting it, it would put a massive thundercloud over the rest of my life. Also, what would be the point? There's no cure, so I'd just be left constantly worrying," says Phillips, whose mother died aged 74 in 2006, and her father died six years later at 76.
"I'm going to sit down and research care homes and put it all in a document so Martin doesn't have to do that in a panic or emergency, like I had to.
"Also, I'll write a list for him so that he knows about running the house, the boys, and basically how things should be done if I'm not here. He doesn't see the need because he's lovely and incredibly reassuring, and always says 'Don't worry about it, I'm sure it won't happen to you.' Well, hopefully it won't, but it might, and I'd rather be prepared."
Although five years ago, the toll of working, caring for her parents and also her then young sons led to her quitting her role as matriarch of breakfast show GMTV, the move eventually proved to be a positive turning point in her life.
"When I look back, I wish I'd quit earlier," says Phillips, who was the main anchor from 1997 to 2008, now looking the picture of health and years younger than she appeared in photos taken during her final stressful year in the role.
"I'm a completely different person now and so much happier and fitter," she says. "I feel I've got my life back and have a lovely balance between work and home. I can't think how I coped. I was an older mother - 38 and 41 when I had the boys - and they were little when my parents, who lived in Wales, started to have their crises. I was coping with both ends of the age spectrum, trying to keep a marriage and family going, travelling constantly to see them, as well as having to stay on top of my game for my job and getting up at 3.30 most mornings.
"As a woman, you try to be all things to everybody. We have a built in compulsion to care for others, but having it all comes at a cost. With hindsight, I realise I had a breakdown during that time, suffered from constant shingles, was totally exhausted and always irritable. It was madness but, thank goodness, it's all behind me."
In typical feisty Phillips style, she's used uncertainty about her own future to energise herself and ensure she uses her time positively.
"I do feel strongly about things and have never been afraid to speak out and help make a difference if I can - like talking about Alzheimer's. One of my other big concerns is the huge amount of sugar in our diets, and our addiction to it, which is a cause of obesity," says Phillips, who's supporting Change4Life, which provides advice, tips and recipes for parents looking to reduce their family's sugar intake.
"As a mum of teenage boys, I'm particularly worried about the vast quantities of sugar this age group consumes. There's also so much hidden sugar in our food, such as ready meals, some of which can contain up to 12 teaspoons of sugar. Britons consume an incredible one million tons of sugar a year and it puts people at risk of diabetes and heart disease."
Fiona Phillips is supporting Change4Life, which provides helpful advice and recipes for parents looking to reduce their family's sugar intake. Search Change4Life online for more information