Nayantara (name changed) is in her forties, and lives with her parents because her father has dementia and her mother needs help in his care. Unfortunately, though her father has been showing strange behavior for years, and has been diagnosed with dementia, family members (his relatives and his wife) refuse to accept the diagnosis and insist that he is normal. When Nayantara tries to explain the problem, they accuse her of exaggerating, and sometimes even doubt her motives. They also accuse her of not taking care of her father, though they are not really willing to help. [note]
In this interview, Nayantara describes the situation and talks of the strange ways in which her father acts, and how she copes with the stress.
Could you give us some background information first?
Father comes from a poor family. He has a physical deformity because of which his parents neglected him and were unwilling to pay for his education. Being a brilliant student, he funded his studies by taking tuitions for younger children. His childhood problems, however, left him an insecure person, prone to anger.
All those years we just thought he was a difficult man to live with.
Father’s strange behavior is something my sister and I have seen for many years, such as episodes of disproportionate anger and walking out of the house. My mother always considered them normal, and as they increased, we did not really think there was a problem and did not consult a doctor about them. All those years we just thought he was a difficult man to live with.
When I finally approached a psychiatrist because of some more problems we faced, the psychiatrist conducted tests on Father and gave the diagnosis of dementia. He told me that the dementia had probably been growing over the years and may have been the reason for the troublesome behavior earlier.
The diagnosis happened about three years ago, and Father has been getting worse in spite of the best care we are able to give. Earlier, he would walk a lot and talk to people; now he has withdrawn completely. Unfortunately, no one in the family believes the diagnosis and they treat him as a normal person and expect him to behave as one. This puts stress on him, because he is not able to remember the incidents they mention, and gets even more agitated. Once, for a period of a few weeks, he was convinced that I was trying to kill him–that was particularly traumatic for me, because people believed his accusations.
Currently, we have employed a full-time attendant so that he gets the attention he wants. He is relatively stable and withdrawn, and seems okay most of the time, but I am finding it a problem to balance caring for him and working to earn money to pay for the expenses we incur.
You mentioned earlier episodes of strange behavior, prior to the diagnosis. Could you describe them?
Often, Father would get angry for trivial reasons. For example, if guests/ relatives had come over, he felt he was not getting attention the way he should, and would get furious. If someone else was served water first, he claimed he was being mistreated or neglected. In that mood, he would throw things (bottles, plates, whatever he could) or refuse to eat food.
He also started walking out of the house in anger. He would not come back on his own, and my sister and I would have to go around looking for him. Usually, he would always head for the park near our house, perhaps to make sure that we would find him and bring him back.
These episodes would upset everyone, and we would get angry at him after bringing him back, and he would yell back, and the whole mutual screaming would continue for two to four days before it subsided.
Sometimes, instead of getting angry and throwing a tantrum, Father would react to his perceived neglect by withdrawing totally and not talking to anyone.
Most of these episodes were related to there being a crowd in the house, such as for a family gathering or function.
All through these, my mother and others behaved as if this was normal behavior, and my sister and I also assumed this to be so.
What made you consult a psychiatrist?
…his talking reduced to a level that was alarmingly low.
Around three years ago, Father changed in many visible ways. One was that he became obviously weaker physically. He used to be so fond of long walks, but now he started spending hours at home, just sitting and looking at the wall. Though he had always been an introvert, his talking reduced to a level that was alarmingly low.
He also became very suspicious of everyone and everything, and talked as if everyone was conspiring to hurt him or rob him.
I felt this was not normal, and decided to consult a psychiatrist.
How did getting a diagnosis change things?
The main change was that I understood he had a problem and would not get so upset when he was angry or behaved in inconvenient ways.
Unfortunately, my mother and the rest of the family do not believe the diagnosis.
What does your mother say about his behavior if she does not accept the diagnosis? When he accuses you of mistreating him, does she believe his accusations?
My mother thinks Father is normal, and that all his behavior has been, and continues to be normal. She says his walking out of the house and not returning till we located him and brought him back, was normal. She believes he is still normal.
She does not believe his accusations, but has never stood up for me or defended me with him or with my aunts when he has accused me. Father always suppressed her, not allowing her to go out of the house or talk to people, and she has never developed the confidence of tackling him, so she does not know how to react to such accusations.
Can you describe the incident where your father thought you were trying to get him murdered?
That was awful.
…my father became convinced that I had hired someone to kill him
I don’t know what prompted it, but my father became convinced that I had hired someone to kill him. He thought I was after his money. He told my mother; she did not believe him, but didn’t know what to say to him. He then called up his sisters in Hyderabad and they rushed over to Bangalore the very next day. He told them to go to the police immediately because his life was in danger.
My aunts began to scold me. They did not go to the police but started telling me that what I was doing was wrong and that I should not do such a wrong thing. They told me to transfer his money to their names and said that once I did that, they would look after him.
I felt very hurt, but I tried to stay in control, and told them that he was confused and not normal. They did not believe me, and kept saying I was cooking things up. I asked them to wait for a day or so and watch his behavior before deciding.
By evening, Father had started acting vague, and my aunts said that maybe there was a problem with him. I asked them to stay for another day to observe him but they said they had families to look after, and left that very evening.
I felt very bad that they had believed him and that everyone had gathered to curse me like that. I almost broke down.
But if they thought his life was in danger, wouldn’t they have tried to take him away from home first, instead of ‘scolding’ you? If they believed him even a little, would they gone back and left him here, living with you?
I don’t know why they behaved in that way if they didn’t really believe him. The morning they came, they kept insisting that I transfer all the money to their account so that they can look after him, and when I refused, they seemed to lose interest. Maybe they spoke like that not because they believed him but because they thought he would be easy to look after and they felt he had a lot of money. I don’t know what they really believed or wanted; all I know is they kept saying harsh things to me and I almost broke down.
Did your aunts know of the diagnosis?
Yes, I had told them of the diagnosis, but they claimed I am exaggerating normal problems any old person has just to get his money.
One thing is, Father’s behavior is not uniform. On some days, he seems almost normal. Also, when they visit for a short while, he seems normal, and his strange behavior becomes obvious only if they stay long enough–which they do not. Even if he behaves oddly, they say it is an occasional aberration, not a medical problem.
I have a medical certificate of the psychiatrist who has been attending to Father. When I told my relatives about it, they said I must have influenced or bribed the psychiatrist to give such a certificate and that I was trying to get Father declared mentally unfit to get his money.
I have stopped trying to explain that Father has a medical condition
I have stopped trying to explain that Father has a medical condition or that I have a formal diagnosis for him. What’s the point! Instead of believing me or trying to understand, they only start accusing me of things like wanting to rob Father! They are not willing to help but very quick to criticise.
Are your aunts still in touch with your father? Does he still complain about you to them?
Whenever my aunts talk to Father, he gets agitated because they remind him of something that disturbs him, or that he does not remember. They do not take his mental state into account while talking to him. I have requested them not to talk to him, but they continue to call him up once in a while, and every time they do so, he gets disturbed and becomes difficult to handle.
Has he often shown fear of attack and murder?
Father thought that my mother was trying to kill him and would become very agitated if he saw her.
There was once a period of one-and-a-half month when Father thought that my mother was trying to kill him and would become very agitated if he saw her. For that entire period, my mother moved to my room and made sure that Father did not see her. As Father was mainly staying in his room all the time, we were able to do this.
Then, there was this phase when he was convinced that something was being stolen from his room every day. He would open and close his cupboard several times (all in the evening, after 6pm) to confirm that everything was still there.
Poisoning is another thing Father was very scared of. Once he stopped drinking milk for several days, claiming it did not taste the way it should and had been poisoned.
His paranoia was so great that for several months, he made it a daily routine that I should touch him and swear that I would not cheat him or kill him. He even insisted that I fall at his feet as part of this daily swearing. He made me write this on stamped paper as a guarantee and kept this paper carefully in his cupboard, as if that was protection.
Are there other strange behavior patterns you’d like to share?
Well, Father acts strange in many ways. Medicines, for example. He will keep acting suspicious of his medicines and say he wants a medicine changed. He refuses to take the old medicine, claiming it is ineffective, or that it will harm him. I therefore have to consult the doctor and get the medicine replaced, typically by another brand for the same medicine.
He seems very insecure in spite of all we do to keep him safe and happy.
Another thing that bothers Father is the thought of death. He is very scared of it, and cannot bear to see any death in any TV serial. He cannot even bear to see someone cry, and makes us put off the TV if there is a scene involving crying. He seems very insecure in spite of all we do to keep him safe and happy.
On some days, if I touch him affectionately, he looks happy. On other days, he reacts to that gesture with surprise and says, why, what’s wrong, am I dying?
Father’s disorientation causes all sorts of problems and it is not always possible to prevent them. For example, he likes to drink hot milk very early in the morning, and so I keep it in a flask. I heat it late at night so that it is still hot when he takes it at his usual time. One day he decided to have it earlier, just after I’d prepared the flask for him, and he poured the milk directly in his mouth instead of using the glass I keep near the flask. The milk was so hot it scalded him, and he spilled it over his body. As a result, he got boils in his mouth and all over his body and it took many weeks for the boils to go because he is a diabetic. We need to be very careful all the time, because he does not know what he is doing.
Sometimes, when I go out, Father feels uncomfortable and wants me back. For this, he complains of things that he knows will make me rush back. A few days ago, for example, I had gone out and I got a call from home that Father was complaining of severe chest pain. Though I suspected this was not so, I could not take any risk, and rushed back. I talked to the doctor, who said that there was a pill he needed to take if he genuinely had pain, but he should not take the pill if there was no pain. I took the pill to him and told him what the doctor had said, and Father just shrugged and said that he didn’t have any pain.
One more thing: Father is very good at hiding things. Because he wants to have money easily available, I have given him a thousand rupees. He keeps this money on him all the time. He even holds it in his hand when he is changing his clothes or having a bath. Sometimes, when he cannot hold it, he hides it in his room, but he always manages to find the money. He may tell the attendant looking after him where he has hidden the money, but he also instructs her not to tell anyone else or the money will get stolen.
Can you share any incident which was heart-warming for you?
Once, my guru was supposed to come home for a visit. I was very tense as I thought Father would complain about me to him, telling him how bad I was, how I did not care for him, spilling out all those complaints as he did when his sisters came.
He told guruji that I was looking after him very well, and that I was a very good daughter
But when guruji sat down with Father, Father was very mellow. He told guruji that I was looking after him very well, and that I was a very good daughter and that he doesn’t have to worry about anything because I am there with him.
I was totally stunned by Father’s words, and very touched. I felt that, deep down, Father appreciates what I do, and so my effort is worthwhile.
What is your father’s current state?
Father is totally withdrawn now. Once, he would walk several kilometres every day, but now he stays in his room all the time. He does not try to walk out of the house any more; I think he is scared that we will not bring him back.
He also needs help for his normal activities, like bathing and eating. We have got a full-time attendant to help him, and I think that is good because he is very happy that there is someone with him all the time. He keeps telling her to do things–get me water, take the water away, put on the fan, put off the fan, fetch me the kerchief, keep it back, and so on. When he would do it earlier with my mother or me, we found it difficult to handle because we would have to drop whatever we were doing to attend to his demands, but this attendant is employed for just this work, and she is able to do what he wants, and he is happy he is getting the attention he likes to get.
Healthwise, Father also has several other problems. He has gastroparalysis, and is a diabetic and hypertensive. He also has vascular disease and is a cardiac patient. This means that we have to keep taking him for various checkups, and that is a struggle. Because of his dementia, he is often paranoid and wants to change doctors because he starts claiming that the current doctor is trying to poison him.
…we are really doing so much to keep him happy–what else could we do? But he is not happy.
There are days when the situation depresses Father. In spite of all we are doing to keep him happy, he claims that he wants to die, and threatens to jump out of the window. That hurt me, because we are really doing so much to keep him happy–what else could we do? But he is not happy. We have taken precautions to make sure he cannot jump out of the window, but the fact that he thought about it made me very sad.
How do you and your mother cope with the stress of caregiving?
I am fortunate enough to have a good circle of friends who understand my problems and I can talk to them and meet them. In addition to meeting friends, I love music, and I sing to overcome my stress. I have also found ways to feel more at peace about caregiving now.
…I realised that I cannot pause my life because of this; my life has to go on in parallel
My mother, on the other hand, feels neglected and lonely. She gets depressed if I go out of the house, and wants me to stay at home all the time, saying it is my duty to stay with her and not go out. I would earlier listen to her, but then I realised that I cannot pause my life because of this; my life has to go on in parallel.
You mentioned that you are more peaceful about caregiving now. Can you share what has helped you do what you must do?
What has made the greatest difference is my de-personalizing the situation. Earlier, whenever I interacted with him, I thought of him as my father, and of myself as a daughter, and all sort of expectations and disappointments and hurts came in, because I did not want to be accused of all sort of things by my father. I expected affection, and there was none.
Now, before I go in his presence, I remind myself that he is a patient, and that I am like a nurse. That gives me the strength to take any criticism or agitation in my stride.
Father knows that I am more important in his care than others who work for him. When he has a problem, like when he thinks he is unwell, he calls me to tell me about it, though he may not tell my mother or the nurse. He will call me and tell me about his problem, and say I should take him to a doctor otherwise things will get worse. At that time, if my response is not the way he wants it, or if he thinks I am not paying attention or getting agitated, he also gets agitated. Once he gets agitated, he is extremely difficult to handle. Now I am alert about this, and am careful to be attentive and comforting when he voices a concern.
Also, when I feel he is getting agitated about something that I cannot help in, I move away before his agitation increases. He usually does not get so agitated with others, perhaps because he depends more on me. If I move away before his agitation is in full-swing, he forgets about his problem and becomes normal faster.
What are your plans for the future, with respect to caregiving?
Currently, having learnt so much about how to handle him, and also having found an attendant who is satisfactory, I am comfortable with the caregiving arrangement. It gets tiring on some days, and also stressful, especially when I have to rush him to a doctor or call a doctor home because he insists that his medication is wrong, but on most days, I can handle it.
…the care takes up so much time and energy that it becomes difficult to earn enough money
One concern I have is financial. I have to not just support my parents in terms of care and errands and all that, I also have to earn enough to support them financially. But the care takes up so much time and energy that it becomes difficult to earn enough money. I have to sometimes refuse work because I need to be there for my father. Also, I work from home, and cannot always do so when he is not well, or is agitated. As his state becomes worse, I do not know how I will get the time I need to care for him while also earning enough to pay for the care he needs.
Another area of concern is my own life. My parents expect me to make them the centre of their lives. My mother always says it is my duty to always be available at home, and behaves as if going out for even a few hours is some type of neglect of my parents. In the beginning, I would listen to her, but then I realised that I need to have my own life, too. But as the care increases, more and more of my own need for variety and my own “space” is getting affected, and I am not sure how I will balance all these along with earning enough money and also taking care of my parents.
Even so, I plan to take care of them to the best of my ability, as long as I can.
Thank you, Nayantara!
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.