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Lightbulb moments

Much ado about light bulbs in this household recently. Back in the days when Mr and Mrs E were able to manage their own lives and act on their decisions without a fuss, light bulbs were not an issue. Now that we have Ms Alzheimer’s living with us, they are.

Light bulbs used not to be on my job sheet. He bought the ones we needed, made sure we had spares and fitted them as required. And I, of course, took it completely for granted. It’s different now. So I have acquainted myself with lumens, found out what they mean in terms of the wattage I grew up with and bought bulbs for every room in the house that we moved into 16 months ago.

But I didn’t get it quite right. Some are too bright and harsh. Others are so dim you can’t see to read a book. Then I had an idea. I said: “While I’m busy writing this review could you do a little job for me? Please swap the centre light bulb in the sitting room with the one in the spare bedroom.” I really don’t think I could have expressed it any more clearly. And it’s really vital, I’m sure, that My Loved One is allowed to feel there are helpful things he can still do.

When I looked up from my work half an hour later, I could see – through my office’s glass door – that he was on the landing, removing the light bulb. Very carefully and earnestly on a small set of steps he was trying (but failing!) to be useful. When I raced out to see what was going on I found he had taken centre the light bulb out in our bedroom and the dining room too with the result that I then had no idea which bulb was where anywhere in the house. I sorted it in the end of course – by doing it myself on the steps but it took a while.

It was a worrying indication of the uncomprehending fog that Ms A has generated in MLO’s poor, tired brain. He had, I fear, no real idea what I had asked him to do but didn’t want to say so. He simply had a vague idea that I wanted light bulbs swapped so that’s what he was doing – more or less at random. It is, for anyone whose brain is functioning normally, almost impossible to imagine how this muddy muddle must feel to the victim of this horrible illness.

Then, this week, came a light bulb moment of a different sort, courtesy of a The Daily Telegraph story. It was the first Alzheimer’s research report I’ve read which made any personal sense at all. A UCL/Kings College London study of 3,400 civil servants conducted over 30 years has established that in some people, retirement triggers dementia. Use it or lose it seems to be the message and they don’t mean word puzzles and sudoku.

My Loved One was made redundant (by a new-broom CEO) in 1992  from a busy job as education officer for a professional body. It took him routinely all over Britain and, on one occasion, to the Far East to meet his institute’s students. He was very busy, focused and dynamic. When the axe fell he was in his late forties.

It wasn’t, in the early 1990s, an easy age at which to start again. There were a couple of short term contracts but nothing more. So, for many years – until Ms A arrived – MLO worked in my growing writing business. He did accounts, invoices, filing, admin (booking hotels, rail tickets et al on my behalf for example) and doing some of my more straightforward information-gathering research and interviews. He also ran the domestic side of our life like clockwork so that for decades I never ironed a shirt, changed a bed or bought a potato.

It was, however, all home-based and not – I suppose – the intellectual stimulation that going out every morning, be-suited with briefcase, and working with lots of other people had been. Some would say that, effectively, he retired before he was 50.

Could it be that over 20 years at home has triggered the arrival of Ms A at a relatively young age? MLO was 71 when he was diagnosed last year. We shall never know. But, as far as I’m concerned, it vindicates my own decision (made long ago) that, while I can possibly manage to work at all, I am most definitely not going to retire. My friends, many of whom seem to be having a lovely time doing not a lot, disapprove with passion. But we’re all different and I am certain that this is the right thing for me in my situation. I often say, flippantly, that’s it’s work which keeps me sane Perhaps it’s truer than I realise.

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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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