Amma and Alzheimer's

A picture, they say, can trigger a chain of thoughts. True that. It was a photograph of my grandmother reading the morning newspaper. She is 93 years old and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Slowly but steadily she has been losing her memory and control over body functions. It broke my heart when she stopped recognising me. I was her first grandchild; I reluctantly learned to share her with cousins. Now the extended family shares the task of taking care of her. Nothing about it is easy. We have learned to accept the changes that have been happening to the only one constant in our lives: Amma.

The witty and acerbic Amma who had an opinion on everything from fashion to traditions, politics and politicians, religion and films has gone into a non-communicative state. The only thing that catches her attention are those saas-bahu serials. She watches them endlessly... I have a newfound respect for these serials now. Pic/Thinkstock
The witty and acerbic Amma who had an opinion on everything from fashion to traditions, politics and politicians, religion and films has gone into a non-communicative state. The only thing that catches her attention are those saas-bahu serials. She watches them endlessly... I have a newfound respect for these serials now. Pic/Thinkstock

But back to the picture of her reading the newspaper. I wonder what she was processing in her mind? She was always an avid Jansangh and then BJP supporter. But she had lost most of her cognitive abilities by the time BJP won the election of 2014 so it didn’t matter to her who won the elections. She didn’t vote either. In the one-year and half years that she has lost her memory of recent events, Advani and Vajpayee are no longer at the helm and there is a new Prime Minister. But her home state elected a Congress government. She would have been annoyed at that. Maybe its best she doesn’t know.

We lost the cricket world cup. I wonder if it matters to her. She watched the family watching the matches. Not able to comprehend anything. And yet she watches the women oriented TV serials. She has forgotten to speak. Once in a few days she suddenly speaks of her childhood spent in a village in the interiors of Karnataka… a sentence here or there.

In the community they call her Puttur Amma. The lady of Puttur. But she herself doesn’t remember the town. She doesn’t recognise the name either. She doesn’t remember her husband’s name or recognise his photograph. They were married for over 50 years. But they never celebrated their anniversaries. Such things were ‘not done’. Ajja died long ago. She stopped mourning him or others who passed away.

The witty and acerbic Amma who had an opinion on everything from fashion to traditions, politics and politicians, religion and films has gone into a non-communicative state. The only thing that catches her attention are those saas-bahu serials. She watches them endlessly. So does my friend’s frail mother-in-law, who in her nineties has gone blind, can barely hear, and cannot walk without support. All she does voluntarily is putting on her headphones to hear the bizarre dialogues of the TV serials, minus the visuals. But she won’t converse with those near her.

I have a newfound respect for these serials now. I abhor watching TV unless it is for work. But if this helps people who suffer from dementia and related ailments, hat tip to those who make the saas-bahu soap operas.

India has 98 million senior citizens. Alzheimer’s Disease International estimates that by 2050, there will be 12 million dementia patients in India. The financial and human burden that India will have to face is enormous and nobody has even done a study on it. Are our cities, towns, institutions, communities and homes equipped to provide care for them? The answer obviously is No. There is a woeful lack of medical care facilities for the aged. Even those who can afford to pay cannot get it.

Geriatric care is a specialised subject that is ignored by medical colleges in the country. In February this year, Parliament discussed a Senior Citizen (Prevention of Geriatric Dementia Care) Bill in the Lok Sabha. All MPs stressed on the need for geriatric centres and day care places. But who will run these centres? Where are the trained specialists? Ask people who take care of the elderly and they will tell you how difficult and expensive it is.

I never paid attention to all this till Amma fell victim to Alzheimer’s and all of us saw what it is like to slowly wither away mentally. She never prepared for it. The pension papers of her husband, bank records, her precious saris, fixed deposit gifts to grandchildren and great-grandchildren… things that she was confident she would do ‘later’.

All too soon, caregivers to dementia patients give up on their own health needs. It is very stressful to take care of the elderly. As families get smaller, the pressures increase on individuals. Amma is lucky, she has daughters who devotedly look after her, filling her days with sunshine and laughter. Amma smiles, though she doesn’t get the jokes. She doesn’t even recognise her daughters anymore.

Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash

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