Three Things About Elsie: how each one of us makes a difference


Every now and again a book comes along that really makes a difference to your life, that opens your eyes and your heart; Three Things About Elsie is such a book. Printed on the inside of the Three Things About Elsie cover is the phrase,

Even the smallest life can leave the loudest echo.

This is the core message I took away from Joanna Cannon’s second novel and I feel so much richer for having read it.

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In contrast with her first novel, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep (read my review here),which has two young girls as leading characters, Three Things focuses on the elderly Florence and her friend Elsie. Florence lives in a care home and we meet her lying on the floor after a fall, waiting for someone to find her.

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To keep herself busy, she reflects on her past and present life, believing that she has never made a difference, even though it turns out that is far from the truth. This perspective spoke to my heart in a very fundamental way. I have lost both of my much-loved grandparents over the last couple of years. They were such a fundamental part of my life and I loved, respected and was in awe of them. For me, their old age was something to admire, they had so many stories to tell, so many experiences to share.

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{Table decoration at my grandparents’ 65th wedding anniversary}

My grandparents were married for 68 years, imagine that. They fled from East to West Germany before the wall was built. My Omi had a children’s short story published in a newspaper at Christmas time. My Opi was an awesome photographer and had his work displayed in the care complex where they lived. I could go on and on. When their bodies started to slow down in their mid 80s, their minds were still incredibly active, and they struggled to come to terms with this change in pace and change in physical freedom.

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{My lovely Omi}

Shortly before their deaths, both faced rapid mental decline and they felt so frustrated in moments of clarity. They were lucky as they lived in an outstanding home, with staff who treated them with such care and respect. They lived in an  environment where there were countless activities and events to promote inclusion in society and to keep their minds stimulated.

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{My equally lovely Opi}

I write all this because my grandparents have made me think so much of what it means to be old, they have made me look at how we as a society treat older generations, they have made me think about what my own future could look like. What happens if I am forgotten, what if I forget who I am myself? Three Things gave me the opportunity to explore some of these thoughts, emotions and fears.

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Florence has the onset of dementia, she spends a lot of time without human interaction and at the beginning, the few people in her life don’t see beyond her old age and dementia. Her confusion and disorientation is so heart wrenchingly described. Florence says,

‘I never used to be like this, and if you’re not in charge of the inside of your own head, what are you in charge of?”

A man arrives at the home and she recognises him from a dark moment in her past, yet he is there with a different name and Florence finds it very hard to be taken seriously. And so the wonderful mystery element begins! This treatment of Florence seems rather bleak and in some ways it is; I found Cannon’s observations very true to life; she writes with honesty, integrity and understanding. The elderly are often treated in a child-like way and without the respect they deserve. Their rich lives are often forgotten and their present lives are often dismissed. Loneliness is certainly a massive issue here in the UK (and it is my biggest fear to be old and alone).

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However, this book is also one of the most life affirming books I’ve come across. Warm, strong friendships are formed; the characters are interconnected in all sorts of ways that remind us of what it means to be human; Florence becomes empowered and becomes an amateur detective of sorts; several of the care home staff open up their hearts and minds. There is also much humour, even in the darker times, Flo’s feisty spirit shines through. The conversation she has at a dementia assessment clinic really made me smile:

It (the piece of paper) said, Close Your Eyes on it.

“Why would I want to do that?” I asked.

“Because I’m asking you to.” Doctor Andrews held the instructions a little closer.

“Is it a surprise?” I said.

I heard Doctor Andrews sigh. “Do you not usually do as someone asks?”

I frowned. “Not if I can help it.”

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And then there is the care home outing to Whitby. Whitby makes my heart sing, it is one of the most special places on earth for me. Joanna Cannon clearly loves Whitby too; the descriptions are wonderful.

‘We’d only been there a matter of minutes, but already the sea air had pulled away some of the worrying. The colours seemed brighter and other people’s laughter was more obvious, and my face fell into a smile so much more easily.”

“The yards and the snickets, and the alleyways, hold on to the footsteps of our ancestors, and somewhere at the point where the cliffs reach out to the North Sea, the past is valued rather than abandoned…”

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I also love how Three Things is full of small, thought provoking moments to make you think about how the treatment of dementia could be changed for the better. For example, Florence talks about how her senses play such an important part in remembering;

‘Sometimes you feel a memory before you see it. Even if your eyes can’t quite find it, you can smell it and taste it, and hear it shouting to you from the back of your mind.’

So why aren’t we doing more to actively engage minds and stimulate senses, why aren’t we celebrating all that experience and all those memories? Instead, there are far too many communal day rooms with televisions as focal points. I read a really interesting article recently about an East German care home, which has created a room full of artefacts from the old GDR so that inhabitants with dementia can physically access this time period; a time that feels clear and safe to them (and I know the GDR was by no means safe but you get the picture).

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Having finished Three Things, I had this strong need to act on what I had just read. It is easy to be inspired, to have good intentions and then life gets in the way and thoughts of making a positive contribution are pushed to the side. So, I researched – and there are so many opportunities out there to make a difference to the lives of older people. I want to play my part in combatting loneliness, I want to learn the stories behind the faces, I want to talk and listen. And though I am looking at more formal volunteering opportunities, I will be putting my intentions into everyday practice; it doesn’t take much to reach out to someone on a bus or at the shops, or to stop and chat to a neighbour on your way home.

What an incredible read this was.


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