Between my mother and herself.

Shamya Dasgupta

We didn’t know very much about dementia. It had been coming for a while, and we had no idea it could be halted or slowed down. Just before it got really bad, it was even amusing, at least some of the time.

My mother had begun making up and regaling us with bizarre tales. I had thoughts of jotting it all down and putting together a sort of Conversations between my mother and herself diary. It was one way to, well, “keep your head when all about you are losing theirs”. I’d like to think it amused her to amuse us – she would have liked it if she knew. Anyway, this is how we have always dealt with things in the family: laugh loudly at what is still funny. Later, the doctor told us that the ramblings were a sign that her condition was deteriorating.

My mother had lost her husband and her second child within a two-year span. That, coupled with living alone with a not-too-concerned help (both my sister and I, and our families, live away from Kolkata, where she was). Those years, I would often rush to Kolkata following distress calls from aunts and neighbours. Her sodium and potassium levels would fall dramatically, and she’d need to go to the hospital. She’d be delirious for a few days and then come home and be fully functional in a few more days.

When these hospital visits became more frequent, we decided she had to come and stay with us, there was no other way. Ma had been stubbornly resisting it for years. Things turned turtle soon. She had been uprooted from Kolkata to an alien city, without familiar faces. We were out a lot of the time, and my wife (who works mostly from home) found herself too stressed to function. A succession of carers came and went; we couldn’t find one that really cared. The stress was far too much and it was telling.

Then, for the first time in a year and a half, she needed the hospital again. When she came back, she didn’t recover, instead drifting into a comatose state. We thought perhaps it was time for her to pass on. Only, months and months later, she didn’t. Then we discovered the perfect place for her. Nightingales Centre for Ageing & Alzheimer’s. Only 15 kilometres from where we live in Bangalore. For the first time, we were given a diagnosis: vascular dementia.

She was 77-going-on-78 when we took her there and, in these two years, she has gotten back to being almost as good as before. Better even. Her long-term memory has returned (although it stops just before my father’s death, which – heartbreakingly – she cannot recall) and she continues to have trouble with short-term memory. You can have a full-fledged normal conversation with her. Most crucially for anyone who has known her, her wit is back, and the wicked gleam in her eye. (She was always the most mischievous in her parents’ pack of ten.) Oddly, she is painfully polite all the time now, which is amusing in its own way, because this was a very outspoken woman once.

They have someone watching over her at all times. Her numbers are great, most parameters are steady … and she seems happy with all the attention. And most of the carers there seem to enjoy spending time with her. Ammu, for starters, and Christine, both of who have become friends with her. Christine more, as she speaks English, though Ammu, despite the big language barrier, is probably dearer to Ma, much of their communication based on Ammu pinching Ma’s cheeks lovingly and Ma reacting by saying she will complain about Ammu. It always ends with much smiling and laughing. A number of youngsters – boys and girls – from the northeastern states and Nepal are also around, and that works very well for Ma, too, as all of them speak either English or Hindi, and there are all sorts of games they play with Ma – including one boy proposing marriage to Ma rather frequently – which keeps her occupied and, it seems, more alert than she was till some months ago.

Some of the stuff she cooks up from time to time is still pretty fantastic. Ma is convinced that that the one-time (now dead – bless his soul) actor Basanta Chowdhury is living at Nightingales under an assumed name [the gentleman does look vaguely similar]. There’s an old man who devotedly visits his rapidly deteriorating wife. Ma tells us in a whisper that they are having an affair.

The important thing is, she is better, and we are better. We can go about our lives without worrying. Occasionally she asks “When will I go back home?”. We ask her if she really wants to go. Won’t she miss Ammu and the handsome young men here. She smiles and asks if we can really afford to keep her there. I think it has been easier for her too.

January 2016.