90 and where she would rather not be
My 90-year-old aunt Elspeth lives in a nursing home where she would rather not be. Ellie, as she likes to be called, would prefer to be at home in her own flat with a view of her beloved Pentland Hills. Ellie looks like a Celtic Queen. She is tall, and because she has lost so much weight, her hands seem to have got bigger. Her blond hair has turned white but is still regally thick and wavy. And she has beautiful Delft blue eyes.
The Queen of Spades
Ellie’s gaze can be unsettling. At times she makes me think of the Pushkin’s Queen of Spades. She can predict the value of playing cards before they are turned over. “Your father was an awful man,” she said to me not long ago, fixing her blue eyes on me. “Did you know that?”
Travels with my Aunt
Ellie has been diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s. She has almost no short-term memory. She will ask me the same question five times and still not remember the answer. But until recently Ellie could remember what she did in London during the war. Ellie was a blond in uniform, a WREN, no less. In her uniform Ellie must have been “a bit of a dish”. Ellie also used to love reminiscing about the time she took me on the train to Mallaig at the very end of the West Highland line. I remember being taken to spend the night at her flat because we had to catch the train at four in the morning. My uncle drove us to Waverley station. After much shunting about in Glasgow, we had a cooked breakfast in the griddle car somewhere near Crianlarich. The steward told us how once the train got snowed in for 24 hours, and he fed everyone on board bacon sandwiches. That was the time Ellie introduced me to the Inner Hebrides, islands with names with names like Eigg, Rum, and Muck.
“It’s the sharing”
On my most recent visit to see Ellie I couldn’t help noticing her growing frailty and confusion. “You’re lovely”, she said. “Have you got a girl?” I said it was easier to live by myself, which was only a half lie. Ellie looked straight at me with her Delft blue eyes, and said “But it’s the sharing.”
“What else are you doing?”
Hoping that it would be something for us to talk about, I brought Ellie a mug from the tearoom at Crianlarich station. She seemed pleased with it. But did she make the connection with our famous trip to Mallaig? “And what are you doing?” asked Ellie. And later, “What else are you doing?” And still later “You’re doing what you like, and that’s wonderful.”
“Aren’t we having a lovely conversation?”
I wasn’t sure that Ellie recognised me. “Did we go about together?” she asked. “Yes, Ellie, you took me on the train to Mallaig.” “And what’s your family name?” she asked. I told her. “That goes back a long way”, she said. “Does Sheila (my sister) know you are coming to visit me?” At the time, I didn’t fully understand this line of questioning. We chatted quite happily about this and that. After an hour or so Ellie gave me a big smile and said, “Aren’t we having a lovely conversation!”
“Did we go about together?”
That night, and many times later on, I mulled over what Ellie had said to me. She was trying very politely to work out our relationship. That’s how her generation was brought up. Remember not to let on that you can’t remember someone’s face, let alone their name. Memory failed her, but manners saved the day.
Alzheimer’s affects people differently
In my experience Alzheimer’s affects people very differently. Ellie can’t remember a lot of things, but she can remember some very important things. She knows that people need people to share stuff with. She is interested in other people, and she is curious about their lives. It makes her happy to hear that people are doing what they like to do.
Thinking over my last conversation with Ellie, I had a happy thought. Ellie hasn’t lost her mind, just parts of her memory. She can’t go about as she used to, but that doesn’t stop Ellie taking an interest in other people. She does the best that she can to connect with her visitors, whoever they might be. The fact is, Ellie has more social skills than many people without a diagnosis. This insight made me feel a little less sad about Ellie’s situation. Even if Ellie couldn’t remember taking me to Mallaig on the train, she still enjoyed our conversation. And when Ellie said, “You’re lovely”, a part of me believed her.