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Trauma with tablecloths

I’ve been thinking about tablecloths. As you do on a dank, damp, dark January afternoon. Nowhere in any of the Alzheimer’s literature have I seen it mentioned but Ms Alzheimer’s has certainly hooked her claws into our napery.

Perhaps we’re old fashioned (OK – we are)  but we’ve always used a table cloth at every meal. Said item is then folded up and put away in nearby drawer in the dining room when not in use. The clean ones live in a different drawer.

In recent months I’ve noticed that My Loved One can no longer manage tablecloths. “Shall I lay the table?” he’ll say as he has done for 49 years when he can see dinner, lunch or whatever (I’m the family chef) is nearly ready. “Yes please” I reply and then, out of the corner of my eye, watch him confusedly trying to get the thing onto the table.

When we’re on our own we fold the cloth and cover half the (rectangular) table.  When anyone else is with us it goes over the whole table. The folding and the lining up – an oblong cloth which is larger than the table, I now realise, is a basic form of applied geometry. And geometrical concepts rely, at least partly, on spatial awareness – one of the things Ms A is attacking ruthlessly so that MLO can, for example, no longer drive or point towards Central London or Kent accurately. Who would have thought it would affect table laying as well?

In the dining room (contiguous with the kitchen in our house) it can take him as long as ten minutes flapping, laying, relaying and frustratedly trying it out in different ways to get the cloth neatly on the table. Often it’s all rumpled and lopsided even when he’s finished. And clearing away afterwards is worse because once the cloth is shaken he can never work out how to fold it.

In practice, of course, I try now not to let him do it at all because it is irritating and upsetting in equal parts for both of us. What usually happens is that – if, as I too often am, I’m in a cross-patch mood  – I snatch it from him and quickly do the laying or folding  with an impatient tut and toss of the head. If I manage to be kinder and gentler, I pop the cloth on before he appears or fold it up after a meal while he’s still drinking his coffee so that he doesn’t get the chance to fail.

The same thing happens, incidentally with sheets. The ones we use on our wonderful six foot bed are ten foot square. And – not having arms as long as Roger Hargreaves’s Mr Tickle – there is no way I can fold them on my own. MLO no longer understands how to help me without very detailed instructions along the lines of “Hold this corner in your left hand … lift your right hand to shake the creases out…fold towards me etc”. A year or two ago we would have done the job collaboratively, quickly and wordlessly, probably while chatting about something different.

I find it very interesting – when I can detach myself from the tragedy of it enough to make objective observations – to watch the concepts of space and geometry unravelling. His declining brain presumably now won’t allow him to visualise the shape and size of the table in relation to the cloth. And that’s a very obvious, minor, everyday thing so goodness knows what other more important faculties the same decline is affecting in a less evident way.

In very young children – our youngest granddaughter, Libby, who is 3, for example – you watch these concepts developing steadily and there was a lot of stuff about Piaget’s work on perceptions of volume when I trained as a teacher in the 1960s. Once Ms A moves into your life the process goes into reverse as you head back towards infancy. At present, if MLO and Libby try to set the table together, they’re about even in the tablecloth stakes.  But their brains are changing in opposite directions. Within weeks she’ll be streets ahead of him and saying knowingly “I’ll do it for you, Grandpa”.

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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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