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Forgetting and Remembering

The Alzheimer’s Society logo is based on a forget-me-not and how very apt that is. It’s all too easy to shut Alzheimer’s people away and forget them – so much easier than dragging them out to places and I’m as guilty of that as anyone. And, although I often observe that this ghastly illness is much more than memory loss, forgetfulness is certainly a major symptom.

I see this increasingly in My Loved One’s reading habits. I’m relieved he still reads a lot because neither of us has ever been a habitual TV viewer and of course he needs a default activity. Mostly he reads on his Kindle. We share downloads. “What are you reading?” I ask brightly. He simply can’t tell me. He doesn’t seem to be able to remember a word of it. Not only can he not tell me the title or author but he can’t even explain what it’s about. Whether he’s able to pick up the thread of a book when he returns to it I have no idea – and frankly don’t want to know because if he really can’t follow a plot and is just “reading” mechanically out of habit than that’s almost too sad to bear. To think this is a man with whom I used to discuss books. What a long time ago that begins to seem.

Then there are dates and commitments. He has no idea what day of the week it is and will say, for example. “This must be school traffic” if I’m driving him to the garden centre on a Saturday afternoon. I keep a big calendar on the kitchen notice board and cross off the days off but he still likes to write things (hand writing now quite shaky) in his diary. Quite often he notes things down on the wrong date and then gets anxious about them, I tell him over and over again that he’s made a mistake and usually end up correcting it in his diary myself. Every morning I tell him what day of the week it is and what’s going on today but it doesn’t stick for long – information is now for MLO what one of the educationists I studied at college called “plasters on the mind”.

Sometimes, I suppose forgetfulness is a mercy. What you can’t remember can’t upset you. I even hanker for a bit of it myself. Instead I’m blessed (cursed?) with a razor sharp memory. If you want to know the name of the dog who lived next door to my grandparents in 1960, I’m your woman. Ask me what I was reading on 9/11 or what grades most of my students got and I’ll tell you. Journalistically it’s useful.  I write most reviews and interviews without looking much at the copious notes I’ve made. But when it comes to reflecting on MLO and life with Ms A it’s distressing territory because the decline is so clear.

Two years ago we were preparing to move from our big house in Sittingbourne to a much smaller one in Catford – which we eventually did at the end of September. In July MLO was routinely driving up and down the M2 to see estate agents, sort out temporary accommodation for the cat and lots more. He also went more than once to Ramsgate to deliver paperwork to our solicitor. At home he competently joined me in packing/wrapping sessions – by the time we actually left we had filled many boxes with our most precious things ourselves because I didn’t fancy the removal men doing it. Saucepans are one thing. My collection of Wedgwood is another. He was perfectly able to talk to estate agents, solicitors and the like on the phone too.

And if I went to London for work he would routinely lock the house and come up on the train to meet me for an evening show – we’d agree a convenient meeting place. We did that hundreds of times over the years and it never failed until one occasion the week we moved when he couldn’t find me.  At the time (probably wrongly with hindsight) I put that down mostly to stress.

Well, thank goodness we moved when we did because he wouldn’t be able to do a single one of those things now. If I take him into town as I did last weekend for a show at The Old Vic and then a Prom (both review jobs for me) I have to lead him by the hand so I know where he is. I also help him on and off trains and down steps.

Much of the time he seems very vague about where we are and where we’re going. “We’ll go to Waterloo East because that’s handy for The Old Vic” I said several times, seeing off repeated enquiries about London Bridge and Charing Cross. On the tube – especially if he’s across the carriage – I keep mouthing the name of the destination station or counting them off on my fingers for him as you would for a child. These days it’s very tempting to suggest that he stays at home – which he’s more than happy to do because he finds going out a huge effort. I’m ashamed of the thought but life is, of course, much easier when I’m out and about on my own.

When we came out of the Albert Hall at the end of the evening on Saturday he said he was very tired (too tired to walk the ten minutes to South Kensington tube station?) and I had to get a taxi to take us back to Charing Cross. Where has my lively, energetic, healthy husband gone? Forget him not.

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Susan Elkin
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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