We recently moved my aunt Jessie from her retirement flat into a care home. I don’t think we could tell you what the trigger was. We just realised each week or each month that a little more of her life had been rubbed away. The half knitted jumper which never progressed. The meals which never got made. Then the ready meals which never got eaten. The medication not taken. And eventually the clothes not put on.
Jessie has Alzheimer’s, though it’s not aggressive and nor has its progress been rapid or even steady. It’s more like her mind has become an increasingly loosely woven piece of lace, or a moth-ravaged blanket. The bits that have not disappeared take us by surprise. Yesterday I went to see her when she was still in the dining room at the end of lunch. She sits at a table with 2 other ladies, but there is no chat. The more physically and mentally able residents had already left the room, and having greeted me with a transforming smile, my aunt nodded in the direction of the rest of the room and said ‘they are a bundle of laughs, aren’t they’. That was the extent of the conversation with her yesterday. Just nods and shrugs and an air of mild confusion.
When Jessie first moved into the home we had to reduce her belongings by about 95%. She didn’t really grasp the fact that she was moving, and she had no interest at all in what happened to her things. She had already let them go, in so many senses. Jessie had lived in Africa for 55 years, only returning to England at our instigation once she was widowed. It was then that we gradually realised that her confusion was not temporary, caused by leaving her African life behind and moving continents in her late 70s. It was an unravelling which had already begun. So as my sister and I sat on the floor of Jessie’s flat, we felt we were looking at the remnants of a life we barely knew. But there we were, packing it up, disposing of it, reducing it to its smallest parts. Just as though my aunt had already died. We couldn’t ask who the people were who appeared repeatedly in her photo albums. The names of the places which she had photographed, time and again. We didn’t know why she had kept certain letters or newspaper articles. We had to make judgements about what was important and of value, what should be kept. Jessie’s life, all boxed up.
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