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Clothes and Cutlery

We seem to be morphing into a box-ticking case study. Whenever an Alzheimer’s patient is “assessed” (like being back in the classroom) he or she and/or the carer is always asked about dressing, undressing and eating. Until recently the answer to such questions has always been “Fine. No problems.”

But things are changing. “Was the hope drunk wherein you dressed yourself?” I often find myself thinking although Lady Macbeth’s context was different. I don’t want My Loved One to commit regicide but it would be good if he could find and put on his socks.

For the first time ever, I packed his case as well as mine for our recent trip to the US. I knew there was no chance whatever of his working out what he needed, finding it and putting it in a suitcase. So I put socks, pants, shirts, trousers, night things and his washbag into his trusty black suitcase along with the vests, to which my now cold-blooded man has become inseparably attached irrespective of the temperature. I told him that it’s meant to be warm and sunny in late September Washington DC (and it was) but he wasn’t having it. He has travelled the world, incidentally, with that case so it’s a very familiar old friend. Mine is brown and we keep his things and mine separate-ish although sometimes it gets a bit fluid on the return journey when it’s just a question of getting everything in somewhere.

On the first morning in Washington, I emerged from the bathroom to find him naked, in a flap and rummaging in my case. “I think I’ve come away without any pants and socks” he said anxiously. “Nonsense, I packed them myself” I said getting them out of his case and passing them to him.” An incident like that makes me go chilly with horror – yet one more thing he can’t grasp. I can almost see his brain fogging up. For the rest of the time we were away I mostly had to supervise his choice of clothes and dressing.

And I have, come to think of it, been helping, with pullovers and coats for some time. Child-like he can’t seem to get his arms lined up with the sleeves.  Sometimes, moreover, I find myself offering advice about appropriateness too. “There’s a reception before this show. You might be more comfortable in a jacket” or “That pullover looks really tatty. Why don’t you wear this nicer, newer one instead?”

Back home, ever since we moved in September 2016, all his clothes have lived in the big fitted wardrobe we had put into the next door bedroom which he uses as a quasi dressing room. These days I often find him, puzzled, opening the doors of the wardrobes in the smaller bedroom we sleep in, where my clothes live, because, thanks to Ms Alzheimer’s, he can’t remember where his own are.

Then there’s eating. By his own admission – so it clearly worries him – he now struggles to use cutlery to get food to his mouth. Well, we comfortably abandoned rigid traditional British table manners in favour of common sense and convenience decades ago – all that silly business about eating everything with a knife and fork and never turning the latter that we grew up with, for example.  If we’re eating, say, curry, casserole or risotto we lay a spoon and fork. If it’s roast potatoes and some cut-able vegetarian nut thing or if we’re having something like omelettes we use knives and forks as our parents would have done. Sometimes (for instance for a pasta dish with a side salad) we lay both. There’s nothing remotely “tricky” or formal about eating in our house so it’s a bit tragic to see MLO struggling. The food seems to fall off the spoon or fork and he gets bitterly frustrated. I think it must be a co-ordination problem which prevents him loading spoon of fork securely and then keeping it horizontal. I’ve offered to cut his food up and suggested that he stick to a spoon perhaps with a shallow dish rather than a flat plate but, he’s understandably not keen on being served up food as if he were a toddler. One more nail in the coffin of normality.

Did you ever read Martin Amis’s 1991 novel Time’s Arrow? It’s mainly a holocaust story but the central conceit is that the main character is whizzing through his life in reverse so that eventually he gets reabsorbed into the womb. Well of course, this is real life and that’s not going to happen to MLO but I can certainly see him moving inexorably back towards what Shakespeare called “second childishness”. Our youngest granddaughter, approaching her fourth birthday, is now probably better – and improving all the time – at dressing and eating. Any day now they’ll  shoot pass each other like vehicles heading in opposite directions on a long road.

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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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