Caregiving challenges, trained ayahs, depression: a caregiver’s story

Neena (name changed) is a Gurgaon-based chartered accountant with 22 years experience. She has now quit work to manage care for her mother-in-law, who is now dependent for all activities. In the interview below, Neena describes the caregiving situation and its challenges, and how she handles it. [note]

Please give us some background information about the patient.

The patient is my mother-in-law, aged 86 years, a graduate in music from Vishwa Bharati, Shantiniketan. She has 2 sons (aged 57 & 50) daughters-in-law , 4 granddaughters, and a grandson. Her husband passed away in 1993 and she lived independently in Calcutta and Mumbai from 1993 till 2005. She suffered a heart attack in June 2005; she had to undergo angioplasty, had a pacemaker implant in July 2006. Then she suffered vertebral fractures arising from a fall in the bathroom in July 2007, which led her to become bedridden. This led to an acute salt imbalance in her system and she was comatose for about 10 days. She spent the year 2007 mostly in hospitals, and then slowly started recovering.

My mother-in-law remembers old memories like they happened yesterday, but what happened today or yesterday does not have place in her memory.

Memory failures began, and the physician informed us that the symptoms pointed to dementia. They started about a year ago and gradually got worse. My mother-in-law remembers old memories like they happened yesterday, but what happened today or yesterday does not have place in her memory. Earlier a hyperactive lady, she does not wish to live as a dependant. She has simply lost the will to carry on because she has become totally dependent. It is impossible to cross the wall she has put up around her.

All the incidents since 2005 mentioned above occurred during my mother-in-law’s visits to our home, until finally she was so dependent that she could not go back at all. She is still under our care.

What is your role in the patient’s care?

I am the primary caregiver, with a lot of support physically and emotionally from my husband in assisting wherever he can.

What are the current symptoms?

A major dementia-related symptom is acute loss of current memory and lack of connectivity with family members , their conveniences , even concern for the caregiver. I have found her to be very rude both with me and the ayah – perhaps she feels we force her to go through her daily chores like walking, eating herself, etc. She tends to go through phases of aggression and hallucination, and then phases where she is very quiet.

My mother-in-law’s situation is complicated because she also has several other medical problems. For example, she is very prone to sodium imbalance. We know by now that when she seems disoriented or keeps repeating the same thing without being able to control herself or when she is very sluggish, it is time to get a blood test and to increase her salt intake. Keeping her heart condition stable is a major concern for the attending physician. My mother-in-law also has other problems, such as osteoporosis, a tendency for epilepsy attacks, hypertension, etc., and needs around 20 medicines every day. Managing all these problems on a daily basis is a challenge for us.

Please describe the current care arrangement for the patient.

There is no long term care for such old people in and around Delhi. She is at home and has a full time ayah to look after her. I and my husband ensure she has everything else she needs.

If some caregivers/ relatives are in different cities, how is caregiving coordinated and responsibility shared?

Caregiving is not shared between her two sons. My husband, the younger son, has taken full responsibility. Very occasionally, the elder son stays in our house if we go for a vacation for a few days.

Can you share some of the challenges you face (or have faced) in caregiving?

The biggest challenge is to get the patient to try to help herself by keeping up some basic activities e.g. eating, walking to the toilet, walking in the house, listening to music, or even watching television. While she does things and stays active when we are telling her to do things, she stops her activity as soon as we stop telling her to do things.

Her agitated calling out upsets the whole family, including my kids who are often studying in the apartment and get disturbed.

Currently she will not let her ayah leave her line of vision even if the ayah wants a break to eat or to go for her bath. We also have a household maid to help in the other chores, and we have to make this household maid sit with my mother-in-law when the ayah is taking a short break, otherwise my mother-in-law will keep calling out for her ayah, raising her volume without stopping to even breathe( literally). Her agitated calling out upsets the whole family, including my kids who are often studying in the apartment and get disturbed.

In situations like this, I quietly shut the door to her room so that she tires herself out and stops. I know she cannot fall off the bed. She will not even try to lift herself up from bed because she does not want to do anything herself. She has no awareness that she can reduce the rate at which she is becoming more and more dependant. Her physician feels I am pampering her, but I don’t see what other choice I have!!

For which activities is the patient currently dependent?

She is dependant for every activity.

Please share some caregiving incidents that you found fulfilling/ heart-warming.

Once she told me, “You must have been my mother in your earlier life, that is why you take such good care of me.”

In the initial stages, every time there was a crisis and she was rushed to the hospital it would be a relief to be able to bring her back home. Once she told me, “You must have been my mother in your earlier life, that is why you take such good care of me. Even God knows that I should be in your house when I have a major ailment coming and that is why I come to you every year….” ( For three consecutive years this had actually happened)

How supportive have relatives and friends been? How do they help you?

Initially everybody sympathises, but then in the end it is only the primary caregiver who has his / her hands full.

Children at home can be amazingly supportive because they see what it takes.

Children at home can be amazingly supportive because they see what it takes. I remember once I came back from office to find my daughter ( then 15) studying in her grandmother’s room for her CBSE class X examination the next day because her grandmother had complained of a chest pain and was restless! My son of 14 years often takes over from the ayah when his grandmother goes for her walks around the apartment, and even gently coaxes his grandmother to walk a little more.

Please describe the adjustments/ compromises you have made in your life to care for the patient.

I have two teenage kids and my husband travels a lot, and my family depends on me for running the house and managing her care. I could have continued working, but the stress got to me so I simply QUIT.

I am a qualified chartered accountant, but I had to finally give up my profession after 22 years in service because of the lack of availability of hired help on a continuous basis to assist the patient in her daily chores. It was simply getting impossible to deal with the stress of the ayah leaving and training a new one. And dodging the office. I have two teenage kids and my husband travels a lot, and my family depends on me for running the house and managing her care. I could have continued working, but the stress got to me so I simply QUIT.

Do people around you understand dementia? Are they able to interact with the patient?

Dementia is not a word understood by many. I heard about it from doctors, researched and understood some of it.

While feminine instincts help them handle a part of it, not all ayahs are willing to understand the nuances.

Ayahs used for looking after patients are untrained maids who claim they know patient care. While feminine instincts help them handle a part of it, not all ayahs are willing to understand the nuances. Some come to work only for the money and don’t wish to understand the work involved or tolerate the stress. When I get an ayah who understands, I get some relief, but ayahs are around for a maximum of 5 to 6 months at a stretch.

Have you faced/ are you currently facing social isolation or stress because of your caregiver role? How do you handle it?

Self inflicted social isolation happened in the early phase when both my husband and I were afraid to stay away longer than essential. When we ventured on any short holiday- 2-3 days we would get a call from my mother-in-law saying she was dying and we must be back that day. The ayah would be stressed, and so would we. We had moved from Calcutta to Delhi and we had no relatives here. That made life more difficult because we knew no one we could leave her in the care of. Her elder son was in Mumbai and could not come because he had a job to handle too!!

Gradually we got used to the stress and learnt to recognize the false alarms. Finally we started extending the length of our vacation. In 2008 we did a 15 day road trip to Leh, Ladakh, when my husband’s brother came and stayed with my mother-in-law for 10 days.

What sort of additional resources/ facilities/ services would help you in better caregiving?

A very essential need for such patients and their caregivers is an old age facility / respite home where the patients can be cared for in hygienic and clean conditions. While some really nice facilities have come up in and around Kolkata (my mother lives in one such), there is nothing around the NCR region. It is my dream to one day start a facility here and then gradually in other metros as well.

Any other comments?

To everybody whose aged parent is being looked after by another sibling / spouse, I would say, please give your support to the primary caregiver, because caregiving is one of the most difficult and emotionally draining phase in their lives and every bit of emotional support helps the caregivers cope with the stress.

When you look after a parent who is very old and suffers from dementia, the biggest challenge is to keep the primary caregiver from getting into acute depression . A newborn will never challenge whatever you do to care for him / her but a geriatric who needs as much care will challenge you at every step because they become the parent who has seen it all…If the caregiver child has siblings, the parent with dementia will complain to these siblings about how she / he is uncared for, etc. Often siblings who are not responsible for the care, and are living far away, tend to believe the perspective of a patient, and do not understand that the patient is unwittingly thinking only of her/himself). This often leads to misunderstandings amongst siblings and in the end leaves the caregiving family feeling very let down.

To everybody whose aged parent is being looked after by another sibling / spouse, I would say, please give your support to the primary caregiver, because caregiving is one of the most difficult and emotionally draining phase in their lives and every bit of emotional support helps the caregivers cope with the stress.

Thank you so much for sharing this, Neena.

« A family recognizes dementia and adjusts for it: a social worker narrates her family's story Long distance caregiving: a caregiver describes the challenges and her approach »

Note: This is a personal interview. The situation and experiences described are specific to the interviewee, and the interview is not intended to be seen as a general representation of dementia patients, the families, the care environment, or professionals. Every patient, every family is different and so is their experience.
Some names and details have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewee.

2 thoughts on “Caregiving challenges, trained ayahs, depression: a caregiver’s story”

  1. Recognizing that the stress you are experiencing can sometimes lead to depression is the first step to preventing it — and burnout. To take that step, talk about your feelings, frustrations, and fears with the palliative care team’s social worker or mental health professional. Talking helps you understand what’s going on for you and for the person in your care. It helps you come to grips with the fact that you are not in total control of the situation.

  2. There is a wonderful book called: A Bittersweet Season Caring for our aging parents and ourselves by Jane Gross It was very helpful to provide some insights from someone who has been there.

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