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Not inherited?

Elkin family around 1955. Nick front row, left. His grandmother, Elsie, to his immediate left.

When Nick and I first got together properly in 1967 and it was clear to both of us almost from day one that this was “for keeps”, I had – of course –  to meet his extended family.  I’d known his parents for some time and had met his cousin Bernard several times. Beyond that it was all a new adventure and gradually, household by household, I was presented and welcomed. In those days nearly everyone lived locally which made it easier.

He was under some pressure from his parents to take me to see his paternal grandmother, Elsie Elkin, so in the end he did. I’ll call here “Elsie” her for clarity although Nick called her “Nan” and I don’t think I got as far as calling her anything.

Nick’s grandfather William Elkin, who was a generation older than his wife, had died when Nick was still in short trousers so by 1968, when we got engaged, Elsie had been widowed for twelve years or so. She had gradually gone “senile” (note how the vocabulary has changed in 50 years) and had been assisted into her care home by Nick’s father George and his Uncle Roy. There were lots of rueful stories about how she’d frequently left the gas on and other worrying things so that in the end they’d decided she was no longer safe to live alone, although she was still relatively young.

The care home was in Lee High Road in Lewisham and Nick was very reluctant to take me there but we went – twice, I think. Elsie had been told in advance that her eldest grandson had got engaged and when Nick said “This is Susan and we’re engaged” she smiled and seemed to understand but it was very hard work. I was still a naïve 21,  had no experience at all of dementia and had never before been inside a care home. Poor Elsie sat slumped and helpless in her chair. It was pretty upsetting and Nick really didn’t want me to see it. Both our visits were short.

Then Elsie deteriorated and had to be moved to a different care home – this time to one known to everyone in the borough as the place you really didn’t want to go not least, I think, because the building had once been a workhouse and there were people around (my own grandfather, for instance) who could remember that. Nick visited her there from time to time but refused to take me with him – a mixture of embarrassment and gallantry, I think.

Elsie died in 1970, a year after we were married. Her death certficate is vague because, 50 years ago, diagnosis was much less precise. It hints, however, at what we would now call vascular dementia – and that is unrelated to Alzhemer’s Disease although some of the symptoms are similar.

And this is what I continually remind the family when they mutter worriedly about Alzheimer’s being genetic. The only person we can find in Nick’s ancestry over the last few generation who had dementia was Elsie and hers was a different illness. His parents were mentally fine into their eighties (almost 90  in his father’s case) as were his other three grandparents and, as far as we know, great grandparents.

So it seems that wherever Nick’s Alzheimer’s “came from” it wasn’t in his genes. As I used to say to him – when he was well enough to understand what was happening and to complain – in his case, it was just sheer bad luck. It’s like the unfortunate man or woman who has never smoked or worked/lived in a toxic environment but who gets lung cancer anyway. It happens but that doesn’t make it any easier to cope with what feels like the injustice of it. Maybe Elsie, in the early stages, felt the same way.

Please help to crowdfund my book about all this if you can

Author information
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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