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The Kindness of Strangers

Not so long ago, My Loved One and I – we are children of the cap-doffing 1950s after all – would leap to our feet to allow an elderly or infirm person to sit down. We’d help people in wheelchairs through doors and parents with buggies on and off trains. They were in need. We weren’t. Now the boot is firmly on the other foot and I’m increasingly conscious of “the kindness of strangers” as Tennessee Williams put it. It’s yet another position which Ms Bloody Alzheimer’s has forced  us into.

Take the big, brawny Brit who was immediately behind us as we all disembarked an EasyJet flight last week from the rear of the aircraft down steps onto the tarmac. I was juggling two quite cumbersome cabin bags and the man heard me say to MLO “I’ll go in front. Hang on that rail, now”. He stepped alongside and said with exquisite courtesy and kindness: “Would you like to hold my arm with your other hand, Sir? Thus MLO was assisted to ground level quite regally.

Almost daily,  people watch me levering him on to buses, trains and tubes with one hand. They then obligingly vacate the nearest seat so that I can pop, swing or push MLO into it. There isn’t supposed to be anything wrong with him physically but he has quickly become quite shaky on his feet and is certainly not safe trying to keep himself upright on a crowded rocking vehicle. I suppose that as brain cells become diseased or get knocked out it affects every part of the body and takes different Alzheimer’s patients in different ways.  Most people, when we’re out and about, can see the situation immediately so they do what they can to help.

When we went to see Dunkirk recently in a cinema we hadn’t been to before, MLO – as always – needed the loo halfway through the film. He took himself off and I thought nothing of it. I don’t (yet?) need to escort him to the lavatory. Or so I thought. Well,  I was absorbed in the film and didn’t actually notice how long he’d been gone until he arrived back at his seat next to me, led by another paying punter who’d happened to pop out at the same time. Of course, MLO had got lost in the highways and byways of an old cinema, converted to multiscreen with lots of samey stairs, doors and foyers. It’s a good job, come to think of it, that he remembered the name of the film we were watching. Otherwise he and Ms A could have ended up in Spiderman: Homecoming. I wonder if he’d have noticed the difference? Anyway it was another example of a nice chap spotting a problem and dealing with it without a fuss. He even waved cheerily to MLO at the end of the film.

I think, if I’m honest (and golly, how I try to be – euphemisms and dissembling just don’t help) that MLO must actually look much more frail and seem vaguer than he or I realise. Even close family and friends are used to it and we’re all too close to it to be able to monitor the downward progress accurately. Complete strangers, on the other hand, can instantly see a poor old codger who may need help.  That’s all they see too. They’re not superimposing it on a remembered image of how he used to be or any sort of presumption about how he is now. That’s why people are generally very patient with him in shops and cafes when it takes him ages to find and count out the right money. Sometimes he can’t explain what he means, realises he’s “lost”, smiles and hopes someone will bail him out – and usually somebody does. Thanks, folks.

We hear a great deal about terror, ruthlessness and violence in the world these days. I’m writing this just a couple of days after the Las Vegas shootings. Yes, all of that is mindblowingly dreadful. But it’s news because, thank goodness, it’s unusual even in today’s troubled, turbulent times. Closer to home the vast majority of people are astonishingly kind even to complete strangers – nothing unusual about it  at all.  And that’s something very positive:  well worth hanging on to.

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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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