His condition affected every sphere of my life: a son talks of his father’s Alzheimer’s

Varun (name changed) is a writer whose father has dementia (Alzheimer’s). For a few years, Varun helped his mother care for his father, but later, his mother decided to move with the father to their hometown because she felt he would be more comfortable there, and care would be simpler with relatives and friends around them. Below,  Varun shares his experiences and thoughts about caregiving. [note]

“Varun”, who gave this interview anonymously in November 2010, continued to ponder and process his caregiver experiences and, increasingly began sharing them with friends and caregivers. He is now open about this aspect of his life, and wishes to give his real name: “Varun” is “Eshwar Sundaresan.” We have retained the interview below as originally published, and have also added, at the bottom of this interview, the link to a blog post he made in September 2013, where he shares his personal growth derived from his experiences with his father’s dementia.

For the period your father was living with you, how did his condition affect your work, leisure, and social life? What sort of adjustments did you need to make to balance your other roles/ aspirations with this responsibility?

His condition affected every sphere of my life.

I don many roles in my professional life – writer, journalist, consultant, and others– and I began staying at home more than usual so that I could handle any emergency that presented itself. I inevitably lost some revenue, but I felt that my mother needed my presence in those first three years. On two occasions, I went overseas on important assignments and I was forever anxious about the home front. My mother handled him extremely well in my absence. During these overseas stints, I also had the guilty realisation that I was enjoying my father’s absence. By not seeing him and my mother suffer on a daily basis, I felt… liberated. I admonished myself for being a bad son, but I couldn’t ignore this overwhelming sense of relief flooding through me.

My leisure time and social life dipped to zero.

My leisure time and social life dipped to zero. If I felt like having a drink – and I did feel like that often – I drank at home, after everybody had gone to sleep. Interactions with friends happened through my laptop. Happiness moved online. I decided not to have any romantic relationships in my life for many reasons. One, I wasn’t in the frame of mind to actually contemplate romance. Two, I didn’t want to complicate my life further. Three, I knew that a special new person would draw me away from my immediate responsibilities.

The only positive development, if I could call it that, was that my father’s condition inspired me to write a short story which won an award.

Can you share a few challenging situations you faced while caring for your father? Can you tell us how you handled them?

Almost all the day-to-day problems we face with my father revolve around smoking. Around two years ago, I and my mother decided to curb his habit and we’re still facing the consequences of that decision.

Ever since we rationed his cigarettes – to around 5 a day – he began stealing from home to fund his habit. No matter how well we hid our wallets and purses, he dug them out. We soon realised that in this one aspect – his desire to smoke – his resourcefulness exceeded that of a “normal” person. On those days when he didn’t find any money, he began buying packets from the local shopkeeper on loan. Of course, once the nicotine entered his bloodstream, he had no recollection whatsoever of having asked for the loan. On one occasion, he willingly accompanied me to the shop and blasted the shopkeeper for lying through his teeth. ‘Everybody’s a crook,’ he thundered. Of course, the next evening, he was back at the shop, begging for cigarettes.

Once the loan-route was sealed off, he began scanning the roads for cigarette butts. If he found a butt that could offer a single drag, he’d pick it up – no matter how filthy it was – and smoke it. This new development worried us no end. We could somehow endure the social stigma of such behavior, but what if he were to catch an infection from a cigarette butt?

We temporarily reverted to his earlier quota of cigarettes, but he did not give up the practice of picking up butts from the road. This has now become an enduring ritual and we have no idea how to deal with it.

Now, he’s acutely aware of when he will be given a cigarette – like, after the morning coffee, after lunch, after the evening tea and then after dinner. So meals and beverages have become harbingers of nicotine for him. He wants to rush through them so that he can get his cigarette. Even the slightest delay in placing a cigarette in his hands provokes extreme anger. At all other times, he’s meek as a kitten.

Our only hope is that memory – which has been reduced to less than a dozen sketchy details in his mind – one day refuses to remind him that he’s a smoker.

From the above account, you may have also realised that he has become schizophrenic. One moment, his mind is plotting its way to a cigarette and the very next, he believes himself to be innocent as a lamb. At such times, he accuses us of being callous. ‘Nobody understands me,’ he cries.

He’s almost always anxious and, as is common, he keeps repeating his questions ad nauseum. When he’s visiting his sister, he assumes her to be his daughter (my sister) and keeps fretting that his grandchildren have not returned home. All we can do is calmly tell him that his grandchildren are safe and happy in another city and he has no reason to worry.

Often, spouses find it difficult to move from a partner role to a carer role. Can you share how your mother handled this transition? How do you think a child can support a parent who is caregiving the other parent? Any advice, looking back?

My mother is like the Rock of Gibraltar. She’s a natural caregiver. Having spent her youth in a joint family that expected her to be the dutiful daughter-in-law, she’s used to taking care of the smallest needs of a large group of people. So she barely flinched during the transition from the role of a partner to that of a caregiver.

She was, of course, shaken by the first diagnosis of dementia. During that time, and later during particularly stressful times, I just offered her a shoulder to cry on. She didn’t expect much more than that. Other than that, I interfaced with doctors and informed her of time-tested techniques from the medical world. Whenever she resisted the proper caregiving technique – because it went against her instincts – I persisted with my talks till she accepted the technique. For instance, she became quite defensive of my father when someone wasn’t empathetic enough to his condition. Alternatively, she’d try to reason with my father to behave more rationally. In such times, I had to ask her to let him be. People suffering from dementia do not understand logic. But they do understand a hug, a squeeze of the hand, a caress. My father’s especially fond of hugs. He doesn’t care who gives it or why it is being given. He responds very positively to that form of affection. So we try and give that to him. As much as possible.

I think that in today’s day and age, the child can help the parent the most by:

  • Being there, as much as possible.
  • Reassuring her that society’s perceptions does not matter two hoots. My generation finds it easier to accept this premise and I can, therefore, sell the idea to my mother.
  • Exploit the power of the internet to keep her informed.
  • Remind her that she has the resilience required to undertake this super challenge.

If I were offered the twisted choice – as to which of my parents should be affected by this condition – I’d choose my father. Because women have an infinitely larger capacity to handle pain than men. So my mother can, all said and done, take much better care of my father than vice-versa.

Were there things you considered or did to improve your father’s quality of life? Did it seem possible? Any tips?

My father was an ‘extra-strong’ personality in his prime. And his assertive attitude survived the advent of the disease. I realised very soon that there was no way he was going to turn obedient. We had to accept his wishes, whether we liked it or not. All we could do was to make sure that he wouldn’t harm himself (he isn’t the kind of person who’d harm others).

So these were the decisions I took:

  1. He insisted on going to the temple every morning, unsupervised. We knew it was to scout for cigarette butts on the road. And to dip into the priest’s plate for a coin or two. But if he was denied this outing, he became furious. So I decided that he would visit the temple, come what may. My mother, when she visited the temple, dropped enough coins on the plate to compensate for the priest”s and the Lord’s loss. Once he returned from the temple, he was calm. The rest of the morning and afternoon passed like a hazy summery dream.
  2. In the evening, he’d again want to go to the park for a brisk walk – and I mean brisk. Even today, he sets a Gandhian pace for the rest of us. We were reassured by the fact that the park was quite close to home. And the locality we lived in had become familiar with him and his ways. Like the kind shopkeeper, who never took offence to his outbursts, the people in the neighbourhood would, we felt, return him safe to our home in case he got lost. But he never did. In fact, he self-regulated his walks. During the first year, he would walk into distant neighbourhoods, sometimes through thick traffic. But as soon as he realised that he was losing his bearings, he restricted his walks to shorter distances. Soon, his walks began and ended in the local park. This self-regulation, I think, was put in place by his fear of getting lost. I, for one, did not want him to vegetate at home and lose his physical health – which, touchwood, is still rosy, thanks to his penchant for walking. So I decided that there would be no restrictions on his walking and I think it’s one of the best decisions we’ve taken.
  3. Upon a doctor’s advice, I prepared a photo album for him, tagging each photo with detailed annotations and dates. We kept this album within his reach. He’d open it every day and pore through it, as if he were seeing it for the first time.
  4. I took him and my mother for a workshop held by my city’s ARDSI chapter, a magnificent organization that helps families like mine. At that workshop, my mother listened to experts and other caregivers. Knowing that we’re not alone in this situation helped her a lot. She also got plenty of practical tips on how to handle aggression, repetitive questions etc.
  5. My suggestion is to map behavioral patterns with the times when a particular medication was initiated. You might make a discovery.

    We consulted various doctors regarding his medication. I had a feeling that Donep (and other brand names of the same compound) was not really helping him. If anything, it was making him more aggressive. Some doctors insisted that better results would be achieved over time. But even after years, the medicine achieved nothing productive. I consulted another doctor and with her blessings, stopped Donep on a temporary basis. We found that his mood actually improved. He was a little more lucid and a little less worked up. I suppose these drugs do have different effects on different people. Some other victim’s reaction to the withdrawal of Donep might be entirely different. My suggestion is to map behavioral patterns with the times when a particular medication was initiated. You might make a discovery.

Your mother finally moved along with your father to their village. What sort of pros and cons were considered while making  this move?

Well, my mother did not allow me to consider pros and cons. She was quite convinced about the move. I wasn’t. So I requested the professionals from my city’s ARDSI chapter to pay a home visit and talk to her. They did and realised that she had made up her mind. So they advised her on caregiving and also to report any discrepancy in my father’s behavior at the earliest.

There are many reasons behind my mother’s relocation. I can speculate on and/or verify a few of them:

  1. She wants to be closer to the temples she loves to visit.
  2. She wants me to rethink my own life and, perhaps, find myself a life partner. She’s come to believe that this cannot happen with them over here.
  3. She thinks that my aunt – who lives a stone’s throw away from her new residence – will offer enough emotional and physical support in case of an emergency.
  4. She feels that this is her cross to bear. And hers alone.

I have never been convinced about this move. A room in my home remains empty, awaiting their return. For the time being, I had to restrict myself to a few basic parameters:

  • Their new residence is a condo which has excellent security arrangements.
  • Around 70% of the residents of the condo are retired folks who offer great company to my mother.
  • The locality is small and cosy. Everybody knows everybody. Even auto rickshaw drivers will take you home without asking for the address. It’s that easy to get that familiar with the others. It’s the kind of place that will accept my father’s idiosyncrasies and even celebrate them!

For now, that place is their world. And I’ve made my peace with it.

Are there any problems being faced because your parents are now in a village? How are these being handled?

As of now, there are no logistical and day-to-day problems. The locality has accepted my parents and there’s home delivery for everything.

But my parents are currently travelling in Gujarat where my father has, on one occasion, displayed mild violence because he was denied a cigarette on time. This has made me anxious for my mother. I wonder whether she should be allowed to stay all alone with my father. What if he becomes more aggressive? So my plan is to reassess their situation once they return to our hometown and, maybe, veto my mother’s decision to stay on their own.

I fear that, at the moment, my mother’s desires are in opposition with my father’s. My mother wants and deserves a break every now and then. From time immemorial, her idea of a break has been to travel to a close relative’s home. She wants to continue this practice. But, of course, every new place adds a dimension of disorientation to my father’s mind. My mother is still young and she certainly must lead as full a life as possible. Knowing this, I’d like to explore day care or fulltime care options for my father. But my mother is quite averse to this suggestion because she feels that my father will collapse in her absence. She has circumstantial evidence to back this claim. If he doesn’t have her in his sight for more than a few minutes, he panics. So my mother is even more sceptical about allowing others to take care of my father.

A qualified doctor friend recently told me that in these cases, the caregiver becomes as dependent on the victim as vice-versa. The caregiver begins to define her own life on the victim’s condition. Without the victim’s dependence, she herself is lost. So I must watch out for this co-dependence angle.

…my mother’s state of mind must remain the most important consideration in whatever decision I take.

Having said that, I know that my mother’s state of mind must remain the most important consideration in whatever decision I take. I cannot unilaterally take a decision based on rational thought. I must make sure that she’s onboard with the decision, whatever that is.

In all these situations, I become painfully aware that I’m, after all, a secondary or tertiary caregiver. The brunt of the ailment is borne and best understood by the primary caregiver alone. I cannot be the referee in this tug-of-war against Alzheimer’s.

Have you and your family considered how you will handle care when your father deteriorates? Can you share some criteria/ decisions on this?

I’m quite clear that, when my father is physically incapacitated, we must have a fulltime nurse to assist my mother. Perhaps the nurse will be required before that stage. I’m mentally preparing myself for adult diapers, bedpans, a special bed, bedsores, the smell of disinfectant in the air and the constant anxiety all these things introduce to a household.

All I can do is prepare financially for this era. I’m utilising my father’s absence to undertake lucrative assignments that will fund these times.

It’s amazing how Alzheimer’s teaches one to walk the invisible line between emotions and pragmatism.

Ideally, I’d like my mother to rediscover the joy of life at her age. Maybe explore hitherto-unexplored opportunities. She doesn’t have to be chained to his bed till he passes on. I fear that, when my father does pass on, she’d be left rudderless. So shouldn’t she find parallel meanings in life right now?

…but the final decision on my father’s caregiving model will be my mother’s alone. I’ll give myself no option but to support her.

But, as I said before, I cannot make these decisions on her behalf.I’ll continue to talk to her about these things, but the final decision on my father’s caregiving model will be my mother’s alone. I’ll give myself no option but to support her.

Overall, based on what you have seen so far, is there something you would like to share with caregivers who are just starting their caregiving journey?

To the primary caregivers, I’d say: don’t judge your loved one who’s suffering untold inner turmoil. Let him or her be. You’ll rue the fact that he is a shell of the splendid human being he once was. All the good traits will vaporise and all the vices will amplify. Don’t remember this shell. Remember the past. Remember that he was a great husband/father (or mother/wife).

To the children of the primary caregivers, I’d say: put aside your otherwise perfect life when you address this condition. If your spouse is not empathetic about your suffering parents, then find a way to balance the present and the past. Give your parents a life they deserve while not compromising the future of your marriage or your kids. The modern spouse cannot tolerate loss of control over the TV remote. So please don’t get worked up over his or her inability to tolerate the loss of peace. We live in a transitioning society. It’s up to us find the middle path. Our children may or may not turn up at our funerals. But we must delay the funerals of our parents. More than that, we must make their last mile as happy and memorable as we can.

Thank you, Varun.

Eshwar Sundaresan, writer, talks openly about his father’s dementia and about caregiving, and wishes to acknowledge his identity as “Varun” above. In September 2013, Eshwar wrote a detailed blog entry sharing more related experiences and thoughts (click here: They understand only love ); this blog entry helps us appreciate how he has integrated and grown because of his father’s dementia and the related caregiving environment in the three years since the above interview.

Thank you, Eshwar!

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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.