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These boots were made for walking

One of the things I miss most in my new hard-to-adjust-to, Alzheimer’s-polluted marriage, is companionable walks.

We used to walk miles together. In the early 1990s we did, in sections, both the North Downs Way (Medway to Dover) and the Stour Valley Walk (Ashford to Sandwich) and I wrote about them for Kent Life. Later, even after MLO fell off a ladder and smashed his foot in 2002 and could do longer manage a full 12 mile day, we had a whole battery of favourite Kent 5/6 mile walks which we did, with great pleasure, over and over again.

When we moved “home” to South London in 2016 I had lots of plans for our doing the Green Chain Walk and the Thames River Path in bits along with casually and routinely walking a couple of miles to nearby places rather than taking the car or bus. Alas Ms Alzheimer’s arrived on the scene and none of that has happened.

MLO now walks very slowly indeed, dragging his feet in a sort of weary trudge. I reckon his new natural walking speed is about half the speed of mine which, of course, makes walking together impossible other than functionally – across a car park or through a station, for example.   He gets awfully tired very quickly and shows no interest whatever in walking for pleasure. A grind to the (very close) railway station, to the doctors (maybe half a mile) or from our son’s house in Brighton to the Dome for a concert is one thing. Choosing to do it for no practical purpose is another.

When I walk with him over short distances I usually hang on to him for his safety and so that (as you would with a child) I know where he is. It often reminds me of taking a very reluctant dog for a walk because I’m constantly tugging while he resists because, however hard I try to adjust, his speed is slower and as soon as I stop thinking about it consciously I accelerate automatically. Hard work for the puller and, I presume, a bit irritating for the pulled.

The advice from all the medics, websites and people in the know (except that no one really “knows” this hideous and horrible disease) is that the sufferer should keep physically active. Well in a sense he does because he will walk short distances to places he needs to get to if there’s no alternative. If only I could persuade him to join me round the park occasionally. Alas, a combination of physical and mental blocks seem to get in the way. I’m never sure where or when “can’t” turns into “won’t”.

It’s oddly divisive because, for myself, I try – and have done so for decades – to walk as much and as briskly as I can usually by building it into daily life. If I have to go, for instance, to Little Angel Theatre I generally go to St Pancras and walk down Pentonville Road rather than going direct to Angel tube. If I’m heading for Covent Garden or the West End I try to build in enough time to walk from Blackfriars Station rather than taking District and Circle line – and so on and on. I also go out for walks from home whenever time permits even if it’s only 40 minutes round nearby streets. And yes, I have done several sections of the Green Chain on my own and discovered places and roads not far away from home but new to me. I’m afraid, moreover, that I’m also one of those irritating (smug?) people who chooses stairs rather than lift or escalators if it’s only a flight or two. These days I sometimes put MLO in the lift and then pop up the stairs myself. I’m usually there first.

Time was when MLO would have done all this and more with me – willingly and naturally because it was what we did. Now I wander (or stride more likely) lonely as a cloud.

I’ve been sorting out some clothes and other textiles for refugees in Syria because my daughter-in-law is organising a collection. I think I might as well put MLO’s walking boots on the pile. He isn’t going to wear them again and some poor – but younger and fitter – soul might be glad of them. It’s emotionally quite a hard thing to do, though. Another door clanging shut.

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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