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Sheila Wainwright is known as “The Cat Woman”.

For the past few years, Sheila has been distributing cats to older people in Yorkshire. But these cats aren’t ordinary moggies: they are robot cats.


Research has shown that people who live with Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia find the cats soothing and helpful for their mental well-being. We were curious to find out more.





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As we were welcomed into Sheila’s home near Wakefield, we spotted two ginger cats lying together on a sofa. Were these the robotic cats? One started stretching; then it meowed. The creature blinked, stood up and moved away. Surely the robots aren’t that dextrous?
Sheila explained that this one was a real live feline. The animal was her son’s and she was taking care of him for a while. The other cat, hardly distinguishable, was a robot. At the flick of a switch in his tummy, Sheila caused him (or it?) to wake up, purr, meow and move in an unpredictable sequence. He responded to stroking and speech in a similar way to his live companion.
Though we were keen to know more about the robotic beasts, it’s important to stress that there is more to Sheila Wainwright than cats and dementia. She is a determined woman in her 80s who copes admirably with whatever challenges life throws at her. She has had an eventful life, created her own opportunities and is still passionately campaigning to help others. Sheila is not reticent in soliciting support for her causes, making contacts with luminaries from the media, the ecclesiastical hierarchy, 


showbusiness and even the House of Lords. Sheila is very proud of all her family. Her daughter, a writer, is keen for Sheila to write a book. She definitely has enough stories!
When we visited Sheila, her conversation was sprinkled with prestigious name-dropping! But it’s all in the pursuit of a good cause. Sheila is surprisingly adept at wheedling money out of the right people. After our initial confusion with the cats, we sat down at Sheila’s kitchen table to find out more about why the mechanical moggies are so important – and delved deeper into Sheila’s fascinating life story.

Why are you particularly interested in dementia?
My involvement with the subject came about when my husband John developed dementia. It took a hold of his life. He became very violent. He wasn’t normally violent, he was a lovely. He wasn’t normally violent, he was a lovely gentle man. After he died, I thought the only way for me to go on was to get something good to come out of this awful experience of over several years. I went out giving talks about dementia and the effect it had had on our family. I gave talks all over the place and to all sorts of people. My real passion was getting some Admiral Nurses established locally. Admiral Nurses are trained mental health nurses organised through a charity called Dementia UK. They visit people at home and support the carers. They are all over the country, but we hadn’t got any in Wakefield. I thought that was a tragedy. I got the Nurses by going straight to the top and saying, “You’ve got to do something about this, this is shocking. There’s no help or support for carers.” I went to the Chief Exec, who was quite sympathetic. I raised £100,000 in the end, which was wonderful. It took me 4 years and a lot of persuasion.

How did the robot cat idea come about?
When I was going to events around dementia, I went to a meeting in Huddersfield. I noticed this lady and she had five cats on a table. I thought it was a very strange thing to have five cats on a table. So I went over to have a chat. She told me they were robotic cats. It made me think an incident with John. One time when he was quite violent, he was standing in our kitchen with a chair over my head. He fell back on to the settee. I thought, “Oh God, what am I going to do?” Then our pet cat jumped on his knee. I thought, “He’s going to kill her!” But he didn’t. He sort of stopped mid-stream, and he started stroking her. So when I saw these cats that incident flashed into my mind. If that happened for John, could it happen with other people?
I thought could possibly do something involving robotic cats. But the difficulty was, I hadn’t got any money. And they are £100 each. I went to the Rotary Club and asked them to set up a project as a separate charity under their umbrella. Then there was a competition in Wakefield to win grants for small projects. I went on television – which I hated - and said I wanted to raise money to buy these cats. They would help anybody who was in a dark lonely place or had dementia or another severe illness. Someone who saw the TV programme wrote out of the blue. He said, “Dear Sheila, I think it's a wonderful project, I like to support small charities, I’m going to send you some money.” And he sent £6000! The cats are made in China. Peter Clarke, a chap in the Rotary, helps me with the buying and selling. We get them through an agent in America. We buy them in bulk, 50 at a time for £100 each. Then we give them away to people all over the country. If you look in my garage there’s hardly room for my car, it’s so full of cats. I started my round of talks again, talking about my passion for Admiral Nurses and my support of the Cats Project. The cats are almost the end of the story. We’ve given away about 500. I’ve been doing it for about 5 years. It’s been a real success.


Who do you give the cats to?
We give cats to anybody who asks for one. Our policy is that people ring me up, they ask for cat and we give it to them. We don’t ask questions. Anyone who is lonely or who says
they need it. Peter boxes it up and sends if off. Or I pop it round. I was giving a talk and a lady came up to me with tears in her eyes. She said, “I’d love one of those cats. I live on my own.” And she gave me her story. So I took a cat round to them. I travel all over the place. I took a cat to Germany with me in my luggage and gave it to the Rotary Club in Hamburg. I gave talks to Rotary Clubs in Australia. It’s so rewarding. I do get some amusing stories. One lady rang up, her mother was desperately unhappy. Someone had sent her cat and she was upset because she wanted to give it a name and she couldn’t work out what sex it was. She’s looked and looked and she still didn’t know. We told her it was probably a male who had had an operation! Another lady who had one of our cats knew she was dying. She asked her daughter if the cat could go to Heaven with her. So when she died, the funeral director put the cat in the coffin. “As long as she’s not being cremated!”

About three days later he got a phone call. A rather hysterical woman on the other end said, “I’m cleaning in the funeral parlour where all the coffins are – and there’s a cat shut in one of the coffins – it’s meowing like mad!” The director said, “Oh my God! I didn’t switch it off!”
Where do you give talks?
I give lots of talks at very different places and never know quite what to expect. One Christmas, I went to a party at an old people’s group. There must have been around 200 people there. They were all singing and dancing - there was a lady standing next to me using her Zimmer frame to dance to the music. She was 103! The manager said, “We have a cheque for you Sheila, you must use it as you see fit. Come up on to the platform in the interval and we’ll hand it over” I got on the stage and turned round to see two blokes in full drag - lipstick, fishnet stockings, bosoms, high heels, the lot. They put their arms around me said I had to perform for the cheque. Thank God I used to be a teacher and was used to holding assemblies. I said, “What do I have to do?” One of them said, “You’ve got to sing a song.” The audience were all clapping and cheering. So I had to sing this daft song. But I got the money! That was a bit scary! Another one was at Leeds United. A great big room full of about 400 semi-drunk men. I remember they sold a pork pie for the charity for about £300 – they were all so drunk! That was a challenging talk. But I just like speaking to people.
It’s amazing how you seem to be able to get money to fund the project!
The bloke who wrote initially wrote again and gave us another £5000. So altogether he’s given us £11000. He wrote to me to say was delighted with success of the cats.


There’s more to you than cats, isn’t there. Tell us about your childhood.
My earliest memory is lying in a cage with my grandmother’s feet at the side of my face. It was actually a bomb shelter in the front room. To me it was a cage. I remember a lot about the war because we were near London. We had doodlebugs coming over and we used run out to catch the ticker tape. I remember seeing aeroplanes flying over because we were near Epsom Downs. Fire and bombs dropping – and lots of talk about the Germans. Even now I have nightmares about soldiers in helmets. It’s in my psyche I suppose.

I was brought up in Ashtead, near Epsom. I came from a very challenging background. I always have to smile when somebody says I speak posh. My father was a miner up here in Wombwell, but he got on his bike and went South to become a painter and decorator. My mother drank a lot, she actually died of alcoholic poisoning. My parents were normal working-class people. I didn’t get on very well with my family, except my younger sister.
I passed the 11+ second time around. I went to Rosebery School, an all-girls school. It had been a private school that had just, the year I went, changed over to a state grammar school. So all the “gels” had been in as private pupils. Something that happened in that school made a fundamental difference to my life. I remember exactly where I was sitting in class. We had a teacher called Miss Crout, who wore her hair up on her head. She said, “Now gels, you are going to each read a passage from this book.” When it got to me, it was bit of poetry: “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows.” [from A Midsummer Night’s Dream]. So I started to read. The teacher said something that fundamentally changed my life and sent me off in a different direction. She said, “Sit down child. And do not speak in this school again until you’ve learnt to speak properly - and you don’t drop your aitches.” I sat down and I died a thousand deaths. All the girls giggled. I was 12. I remember thinking, “No-one is ever going to say that to me again.” So I started talking like the girls. I copied them and the teachers. If I said the wrong thing, the other girls would mock me. I think it made me strong. It also made me aware there was another life outside the life I lived at home. There were other things out in the world. It was almost like I lived in two worlds. But at home my mother (who I disliked intensely) would mock me, saying, “Don’t come here with your fancy ideas!”
When I got to 16-and-a-half I desperately wanted to go to university. Mother said, “It’s about time you got out there and did some work instead of all this fancy education.” She took me out of school. I was in the middle of my A-levels. To this day I have never forgiven her.
What next?
That’s when my life started to get interesting. I packed my bags and left when I was 17. I went up to London and stayed with a friend who was nursing. I looked in the Yellow Pages for business names and addresses. So I got a pin and stuck it by chance into a firm called Kemp Charteris. I rang them and said, “I’ve newly left school. I’ve got 6 O-Levels, is there any chance you’d interview me for a job?” He said, “Yes my dear, come in and talk to us.” It was next to Mansion House in the City and near the temple of Mithras – they’d just discovered it. He offered me a job. I met a boyfriend who was a banker. He did a bit of an Eliza Dolittle on me. He educated me. I’m quite grateful. He introduced me to the world of the arts. They all wore bowler hats and pin striped suits in the City then. He wouldn’t even take his jacket off when it was red hot.
After a while I decided I’d had enough of London. I saw an advertisement for a job in a home for Polish refugees in Surrey, set up by Gilbert Harding. Quite interesting but the manager was horrible – it was awful. I didn’t like it and left after a year.
You were very decisive!
I decided it was time I saw the world, so I went to Canada. I bought a ticket for £150 and went to Toronto, where I stayed in a ladies’ hostel. I was very independent for my age. I got a job in Simpsons-Sears Depart- ment store. I enjoyed that, selling sports gear. They promoted me to fitting bras on fat ladies. I did that for a few months.
Then I met up with a girl I knew and we stayed with some friends in Toronto. I said it was my dream to hitch-hike across Canada - so I set off with Diana. We did 6000 miles hitch-hiking from Toronto to Vancouver and back again. One experience stuck in my mind. We were in the middle of the prairies and we got a lift. Very isolated. He pulled up and we got in and set off. The driver asked where I came from. When I said England he said in a German accent, “English? I hate the English!” So he opened the door and threw us out! In the middle of the Prairies, the sun beating down. We had no water. We honestly thought we were going to die. Diana was hysterical. Then, amazing story, another car came along. He said, “Good God, what are you two women doing here? Get in the car and I’ll take you to Medicine Hat.” He had his wife and children in car with him. So we got in the car and started chatting to the driver, Bob. He said, “Where do you come from?” So I said, “Surrey in England, near Epsom. A place called Ashtead.” He was amazed. “What a coincidence - I was billeted in Ashstead!” he said. They took us to their house and we stayed a couple of days. He brought out a photograph album - with a photo of my house. That house was next door to where the Canadians were billeted. Astonishing!

"We give cats to anybody who asks for one. Our policy is that people ring me up, they ask for cat and we give it to them".

What happened when you returned to the UK?
I came back to England and went to teacher training college in Derby having chatted up the local vicar to give me a reference. That started my career in education, including thirteen years as Head at Dewsbury Moor. My aim has always been to give children an opportunity to get out of their challenging life. Some don’t realise that there is anything different. We tried to create an oasis within the school. We had flowers everywhere, we did exciting things: one day we turned the school into a Japanese school; another time we had a circus. You should know how to respond to the challenges around you. Don’t just assume that the boundary of your life is all there is. Get out of the boundaries. How that happens, I don’t know. The other day someone said to me, “You do speak posh.” I said, “I didn’t always speak like this. I created this persona.” I knew this was the way – at the time - to go forward. But the challenges now are so different.
What is life like for you now? How do you feel about getting older?
I’m 83. I don’t really like being 83. Though I’d prefer this to the alternative! I’m happy to carry on with the robot cats. I’m always pleased to go out to talk. I don’t know how much time I spend on it. I belong to lots of things, groups and organisations. I’m on committees and organise several village events. It all gets interwoven. I was Chair of Wakefield Rotary. You meet people here and there in different groups. I’m the sort of person who swaps names and it all interlinks. I like people, I do like people, I like talking and interacting. I have friends who spend all their time lying on the settee. I can’t do that. I think you should keep active and keep an open mind on things.

Thanks to Sheila for talking to us - and to her daughter Rose for putting us in touch.
If you think you might know someone who would benefit from having one of Sheila’s cats, please contact her. They are given out free and you don’t have to have a diagnosis of dementia to get a cat.
Contact: Cats for Dementia
For more information on living with dementia in Leeds and West Yorkshire please contact the Memory Support Service on 0113 2311727


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