Press ESC or click the X to close this window

Spelling out trouble

Alzheimer’s, they tell us, is progressive brain cell death. Over a course of time the total brain size shrinks because the tissue has a diminishing number  of nerve cells and connections. Funny, says she hollowly, how bloody blunt everyone is about Alzheimer’s while cancer, which kills far fewer people, is still often delicately euphemised.

So that revolting vulture, Miss A – actually that comparison is an insult to vultures which do at least wait until their dinner is dead before they tuck in – is picking off My Loved One’s brain cells one by one. Given that every Alzheimer’s patient lives with his or her own version of Ms A  then I suppose the effects are bound to vary between individuals depending which particular cells have been killed.

I am noticing two things in My Loved One which I suppose are down to lost brain cells although I’ve not seen either of them mentioned in Alzheimer’s literature.

The first is the ability to spell.  Now this is a man who was exhaustively drilled in spelling in a funny little private primary school, almost a dame school recast for the mid-20th century, and then by the legendary Dr Giles at Alleyns. He’s always been a sharper speller than I, despite my many years of English teaching. If you were stuck in a crossword wondering whether “aplomb” has a double p, whether there’s a second h somewhere in “Chekhov” or how to spell “mnemonic”,  MLO would have been your man. Not any longer.

Last week I said, without thinking “Can you add Weetabix to the cumulative shopping list over there, please”.  When I later noticed that he’d carefully written “Wittabix” I really did have to swallow hard to get rid of that lump in my throat. He wrote a note for our son asking him to check a “wonkey” (like “donkey”?)  electrical connection the other day too and there have been other instances. So whichever bit of the brain it is that’s responsible for spelling, it’s on the way out, courtesy of Ms A.

It seems to be an unravelling of education as if the learning process is reversing itself. Children will have a stab at writing words they don’t know how to spell – usually because they’ve never seen or noticed them written – and come up with a phonetic approximation such as “Wittabix”. Now I see a man who’s coming full circle, increasingly unable to spell words he’s had under control since he was five or six years old. He’s sliding backwards.  How accurate Shakespeare’s  “second childishness” is as a description of senility.

The second thing I find odd, but which presumably is down to the demise of a different set of brain cells, is the increasing ability to finish a job. MLO now never closes any of the dresser drawers when he takes out cutlery or a tablecloth. He’ll start to put his laundered clothes away, then wander off and leave half of them on the bed. He rarely switches the bathroom light off or puts the yard broom away after using it and so it goes on.

They’re trivial things in themselves. And some people behave like this all their lives, which must drive those who live with them bonkers, but in MLO’s case they’re new. I presume this behaviour indicates that his short term memory is cutting out very quickly and it used not to. He doesn’t, after a few minutes, remember what he’d started doing so of course he forgets to finish it. It’s handy to have Ms A to blame because I could get very irritated otherwise. As it is, I just finish every little job I see left undone – countless times every day. Mostly he doesn’t even notice. I do try not to comment or get cross but I’m afraid I’m human …



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
More posts by Susan Elkin