She was only pretending to forget: A family in denial even after the patient’s death

Rukmini (name changed) is the granddaughter of a dementia patient who passed away in an old-age home a few years ago. Rukmini’s mother and aunt, caregivers of the patient, never acknowledged the diagnosis of dementia, and did not take it into account while caregiving. Even now, years after the patient’s death, Rukmini’s mother does not understand that the patient’s strange behavior was caused by confusion and frustration; she is convinced that the patient was being uncooperative and inconsiderate. [note]

Over to Rukmini:

…my mother and aunt are in denial about dementia and related caregiving even years after my grandmother’s death.

I have read “Caregiver Voices” on this website and also seen stories on other websites. Many stories describe how family members changed their lifestyle, left jobs, and moved from one city to another to look after a loved one. Their main concern seemed to be caring for the patient and they tried their best to make the patient’s life comfortable while also balancing their own lives. My own story is very different, because my mother and aunt are in denial about dementia and related caregiving even years after my grandmother’s death.

Background:

Mom and Auntie (Mom’s sister) live in a small town and Nanima (Mom’s mother) used to alternate between Mom and Auntie. When Nanima was in her seventies, she suffered a series of strokes, and began behaving in a very odd way after that. The doctor told Mom and Auntie that Nanima had developed dementia and would get worse over the years.

Mom did not share the diagnosis with my sister or with me.

Mom felt Nanima’s behavior was hurtful and embarrassing. To add to the problems, Auntie claimed that Mom was not giving proper care to Nanima.

Nanima was living with Mom at the time of the strokes, and, according to Mom, she was acting “stubborn” very often. Mom felt Nanima’s behavior was hurtful and embarrassing. To add to the problems, Auntie claimed that Mom was not giving proper care to Nanima. All this stressed Mom a lot, and every time my sister or I talked to her, she complained about Nanima and Auntie.

I lived in a city which was a day’s journey away from Mom, with my in-laws in a joint family system. My father-in-law had cancer, and my mother-in-law was arthritic and a diabetic and hypertension patient, almost bed-ridden because of her problems. I had left my job to take care of my in-laws and to handle the work of our joint family. Already overwhelmed with various illnesses and responsibilities, my only way of supporting Mom was listening to her and consoling her over phone every week.

My sister lives in the USA; she is unmarried and has a comfortable job. When she realised how stressed Mom was, she invited Mom for a holiday. To Mom, it sounded an attractive way out of her current stressful life, so Mom told Auntie, “Okay, you always keep telling me how I should take care of her, why don’t you handle her for a few months, I am off to the USA to visit my younger daughter.”

Auntie promptly agreed, saying, “Yes, I’ll look after her, and you’ll see, I will take better care than you did, and she will improve”. Nanima and her full-time attendant were moved to Auntie’s home.

For the first few weeks, Auntie was very enthusiastic about the “progress” Nanima was making and kept telling Mom how happy Nanima was. But then, Auntie’s enthusiasm of looking after her mother vanished. Soon afterwards started the complaints, such as “”she is so difficult”, “the nurse has to be fed”, “she is so heavy, one person cannot lift her”, etc. Once, when very upset, she even said, “Why can’t she just die?”

Around that time, Auntie’s daughter (also in the USA) became pregnant and she asked Auntie to come over to help her through the pregnancy and the subsequent babycare.

Without consulting with Mom, or asking her to return to India, Auntie fixed up an old age home for Nanima. She then called Mom and told her. Mom didn’t offer to rush back, and Auntie placed Nanima in the home and went off to her daughter in the USA. Some distant relatives who stayed in their city agreed to check up on Nanima at the old age home every month to send the “she is okay” updates to Mom and Auntie.

Nanima died a year later in that old age home.

The word ‘dementia’ was never mentioned by either Mom or Auntie. Based on what I’ve heard, I conclude that the Mom and Auntie did not connect Nanima’s dementia problem with her odd behavior.

I was not present during the caregiving, but I was in touch with Mom over phone very frequently. I would call home every week.

Mom would tell me and my sister that Nanima was being troublesome and stubborn. Auntie would visit Mom every week, and each such visit was ending in some sort of unpleasantness, because Nanima complained to Auntie about Mom; Mom termed this as “playing politics” to cause a rift between Mom and Auntie. Often, these complaints were about food, such as not being given her meals on time, or getting stale food or the amount of food not being enough. Auntie would question Mom about these and Mom would either flare up or start crying; the whole thing sounded like a family drama of a soap-opera style.

Neither my sister nor I suspected that Nanima has been diagnosed with a medical condition that explained her behavior.

It always sounded like Nanima was perfectly fine physically but deliberately acting in inconsiderate ways.

Mom would also say Nanima was getting lazy and not taking her bath properly. She would say Nanima was inconsiderate and would go off for her walk without telling anyone. It always sounded like Nanima was perfectly fine physically but deliberately acting in inconsiderate ways. Auntie, on the other hand, believed every “complaint” of Nanima and constantly blamed Mom for not caring “properly.”

When I think back of those days, I feel quite sure that neither Mom nor Auntie tried to understand what “dementia” was and how it impacted Nanima, let alone try to see how to help Nanima.

My own exposure to Nanima was very short, and I did not guess anything either.

I would visit Mom once a year in a really packed-tight three-day trip, which was all I could manage. To host me and my husband and kids, Mom would move Nanima off to Auntie’s place for those three days, and the time I spent there would vanish in a whirlwind of visits to all relatives and friends. I would visit Auntie, too, and would find Nanima sleeping in front of the TV or in her room. I barely got to exchange a couple of sentences once in a while, and she seemed disoriented. Friends and family talked of her as a troublesome old woman.

I learned of the diagnosis a few years after Nanima’s death.

After my in-laws passed away, I was able to meet my cousins and attend family functions. Nanima had died a few years ago. On one family function, Auntie’s eldest son mentioned then that his father-in-law had dementia, and added, “like Nanima.” That was the first time I heard of the diagnosis.

, Nanima had slowly gone blind because of her cataracts, but being a dementia patient, she probably did not realise what was happening

Another very shocking thing I learnt then was that Nanima had been blind. Apparently, Nanima had slowly gone blind because of her cataracts, but being a dementia patient, she probably did not realise what was happening and did not know how to tell anyone about it.

Nanima’s blindness was discovered after her dementia had advanced and she was in the old age home. Mom and Auntie were both away in the USA. Nanima’s behavior made it obvious that it would be very tricky getting her operated and making sure she followed the post-operative precautions and care. No friend or relative was willing to even consider whether Nanima could be operated and given back her vision.

The denial about dementia continues even now.

Even years after Nanima’s death, Mom doesn’t accept that she was a dementia patient. When Mom talks of those caregiving years, she only keeps narrating the difficulties she faced looking after Nanima; there is never a sentence to say that Nanima also suffered.

Auntie, too, is still overwhelmed by her own experience and has not thought that Nanima faced difficulties. Once I told Auntie that it must have been horrible for Nanima to spend the last year of her life blind and in an old age home surrounded by strangers. Auntie only shrugged and resumed describing how difficult it was for her to handle Nanima.

…in spite of the doctor having diagnosed dementia, my mother and aunt did not relate Nanima’s behavior to her dementia diagnosis right till the end…

It is obvious that, in spite of the doctor having diagnosed dementia, my mother and aunt did not relate Nanima’s behavior to her dementia diagnosis right till the end. Given that they did not think Nanima was facing genuine problems, their way of caring was obviously full of resentment and anger, and must only have confused and upset Nanima more. It seems such a tragic waste.

In a candid moment once Auntie said, “I never expected her to live so long. I thought she was unwell, so she would die soon. I thought, her ticket had been bought, only the reservation needs to be made.” Meaning, Nanima’s death was imminent, only the actual date was not yet known.

After I heard about the diagnosis and read up on it, I asked Mom whether Nanima had been forgetful. I was told, “Your Nanima was only pretending to forget things. She could remember so many things of her childhood, how could she claim to forget what happened just a few days ago?”

Mom refused to believe me and would not read the article

From what I’d read, I had learnt that forgetting in dementia often followed this type of pattern. I told Mom this and showed her an article but Mom refused to believe me and would not read the article.

Mom and Auntie seem to have forgotten the disagreements and upmanship they had over caregiving

I remember one specific issue that had been a cause of conflict between Mom and Auntie. Mom used to give Nanima toast and butter for breakfast, because that was “normal” at home. Auntie had always been critical of this “laziness” because, to her, breakfast should have been stuffed paranthas. On a few occasions, Nanima apparently said she had not been given any breakfast, and Auntie believed it. When Auntie took over Nanima’s care, for the first few days, Nanima seemed to enjoy the change and Auntie was quick to point out this to Mom (in what Mom called a “gloating” way). But a week later, Nanima was refusing paranthas and had to be switched back to toast.

Within a few weeks of Auntie’s takeover, Auntie began complaining about Nanima, and the complaints were similar to what Mom’s complaints had been.

It is as if they have united because of their common guilt, and they are both busy convincing themselves and others that they had no option but to move Nanima to an old age home

Strangely, Mom and Auntie no longer have any differences about the quality of care they gave. It is as if they have united because of their common guilt, and they are both busy convincing themselves and others that they had no option but to move Nanima to an old age home.

Nanima’s behavior gets worse with every retelling.

The stories about Nanima’s “bad” behavior grow bigger every time they are told, as if Mom and Auntie are trying to convince everyone that it was really unbearable. Perhaps this denial is their way of coping with guilt.

I guess it is embarrassing for them that they placed their mother in an old age home. Perhaps their emphasis on how difficult Nanima was, is their defense against unsaid accusations.

Part of the problem is because our family has always claimed to have solid “values”; everyone is highly educated, in good positions in their jobs, well-respected in their social circles, and many elders are known for their spiritual and philanthropic works. In a family of this profile, one expects that everyone will rally together to do what is right. Mom and Auntie have both taught in colleges, and were known for their strictness. I have often heard them lecture others on how elders must be respected and how the new generation did not take good care of their parents and in-laws. I guess it is embarrassing for them that they placed their mother in an old age home. Perhaps their emphasis on how difficult Nanima was, is their defense against unsaid accusations.

But what I do not understand even now is why Mom and Auntie ignored the medical diagnosis and even hid it from us. They did not try to understand the reality and adjust their care to it.

Nanima was a remarkable woman, and her final years seem so tragic.

Nanima was a truly remarkable woman. Widowed when very young, she single-handedly brought up Mom and Auntie, provided them with a good education. She had to sell off her property and jewellery to do so. Both Mom and Auntie completed their post-graduation and joined jobs as college lecturers. When Namima was around 65 years old, she distributed all remaining wealth to her daughters, saying she did not need any money because her daughters would look after her. Nanima’s life continued to centre on her daughters; she shuttled between them depending on their needs (childbirth, young grand children to look after, etc.)

I feel very bad that Nanima spent her last years in an environment where her confusion and frustration was mistaken for stubbornness, and where her daughters, whom she loved dearly, were unable to give her the tender care she needed because they could not (or would not) understand her problems.

Their lack of understanding made life more difficult for them, too. Even now, they are not at peace about this part of their lives.

Mom’s denial about dementia extends even today, to people around her.

One would think that, having seen the problems Nanima faced, and with all the media coverage of dementia nowadays, an educated and intelligent person like Mom would accept that dementia is a genuine problem.

But those years of suffering that Nanima went through, and that Mom struggled through, have taught her nothing. Mom still does not understand that a person with dementia needs to be treated differently, and that caregivers can help the patient and themselves if they understand that the patient lives in a different reality and adjust their interactions for that.

I strongly feel that even if Mom was ignorant about dementia back then, she can at least be more sensitive with patients now. But Mom’s denial about Nanima extends into denying that anyone could have dementia. She doesn’t state it that way, but she behaves as if no one could have dementia.

Recently, Mom and I visited an elderly family friend whose wife has been diagnosed with dementia. The lady’s daughter informed us of the diagnosis before taking us to meet the lady, and explained that the lady gets very upset if asked questions.

As soon as we met the lady, Mom loudly asked her whether she recognized us. The lady looked puzzled and then said, “Of course,” but it was obvious that she did not. Mom asked her, “So what is my name?” At that point, I quickly introduced ourselves, while glaring at Mom, indicating to her to stop.

Over the half-hour we were there, Mom scolded this lady for being dependent on her daughter and for having stopped cooking. She told the dementia patient that she should have more “will power”.

Mom did not stop. Over the half-hour we were there, Mom scolded this lady for being dependent on her daughter and for having stopped cooking. She told the dementia patient that she should have more “will power”. Mom even boasted that she would never become dependent on anyone like this lady had become. I tried to shoo Mom to keep quiet, and changed the topic a few times, but Mom only flared up more, claiming that it is daughters like me and this lady’s daughter who are the real problem because we unnecessarily stop elders from doing things and are “controlling.”

At one point, Mom asked the lady, “So, which book are you reading now?” The lady said she was no longer able to read much, and Mom began scolding her for not trying hard enough.

On our way back, I told Mom that her behavior was very inconsiderate to both the lady and the family, especially since we had been clearly told about the lady’s medical problem. To that, Mom said that there was no problem that willpower could not solve, and that the lady was just being lazy, and this so-called dementia was just an excuse. “I will never become like her,” she declared.

but how does one make a person understand if the person is determined not to?

We argued for a while, but how does one make a person understand if the person is determined not to? If a person of Mom’s profile can’t understand that dementia is caused by a problem in the brain, how can we ever spread awareness?

Mom is now in her seventies. Surely, she should accept that dementia could happen to her, too, and if so, she would want people to be compassionate while caring for her! But perhaps she is in denial because she is scared she will be like her mother and that we will treat her the way she treated her mother. Maybe it is easier for her to think she can use willpower to prevent such a problem. That is denial at its peak, but I cannot think of a way to make her understand.

Thank you for sharing this, Rukmini

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.

One thought on “She was only pretending to forget: A family in denial even after the patient’s death”

  1. Great Website. I will share this article with my students when we discuss family issues and grief. Happy to share information with you anytime.

    Jamie Wilson
    President & CEO
    Dementia Services Group

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