Sarla (name changed) lives in the USA with her husband. Her mother-in-law, who lived in India, passed away after suffering from Alzheimer’s for some years. In the detailed account below, Sarla describes the progression of the disease and the care, and how the family’s lack of communication, resentments, and conflicts came to play in the situation. We see the whole gamut of the experience–the initial denial, the spouse hiding the loved one’s problems because he wanted to remain independent and not bother his children, the problems of caring from overseas, the lack of coordination and trust, the clashes and criticisms because of differing perspectives over what care constituted, and what the end-of-life decisions should be. [note]
Sarla gives her conclusions at the end. We, as readers, may draw our own lessons on what we can do in similar setup to avoid the problems faced by Sarla’s family while caring for the ailing mother-in-law.
Coping with Alzheimer’s from 10000 miles away
By Sarla (name changed)
You want to get on a plane and be there but also know it is not feasible every time. You live here and they live there and that is the reality today.
What is it like to monitor a serious sickness of a loved one from 10000 miles away? You get a call early morning telling you of a problem. You stay awake all night (being 12.5 hrs behind) waiting for updates. You try to hide the panic you feel (everything seems so much more scary because you are not physically there) and stay calm for the parent who is handling the crisis. You want to get on a plane and be there but also know it is not feasible every time. You live here and they live there and that is the reality today.
This story is about my mother-in-law and her Alzheimer’s Disease, about her care, and how our family of three siblings, two overseas and one in India, was unable to coordinate her care cordially for her sake. All the players thought they were doing the best at that time. It is about choices we all made in our lives and the consequences of those choices. It is about Amma and Papa’s indomitable spirit in the face of overwhelming health problems. And how Amma and Papa suffered, and the situation shook up and shattered the fragile balance of our family.
My mother-in-law (Amma) was an energetic vital person with a love of life, family and friends. When she got breast cancer, she fought it with her typical aplomb. Doctors were amazed at her progress. When the cancer came back in the bone, she fought it again. Being a woman of a generation where she was more used to doing things for others than herself, she felt guilty at the money that was being spent on her treatment. But she retained her fighting spirit. She loved perfumes and on one of my visits informed me that she had given all her perfumes away as she could no longer smell. The doctors did not have an answer to that.
The first sign of her behavior problems came in Aug 2004.
But before I continue, let me explain the composition of our family. My parents-in-law (Amma and Papa) have three children. My husband is the eldest son; there is another son (my brother-in-law, Bhaiyya, who is the youngest) and one daughter (my sister-in-law, Didi, who is the oldest). Both the sons live in USA. Didi lives in Delhi. In 2004, when the problems were first noticed, Amma was visiting Didi. Bhaiyya was in India for a visit, which made it a packed house with various spouses and children. Amma got disoriented about where she was. Bhaiyya took her to a doctor, who did an MRI, found some ‘anomalies’ and recommended some medicines, saying it would help her memory. Amma refused to have them. My husband, visited soon after and he, too, was not able to convince her to take the medicines.
But Papa insisted that she was mostly ok and this was just aging. He was a very tough person and wanted to appear even tougher to his children who lived far away so they did not worry.
When we would call Papa from the USA, he would tell us that Amma was forgetting more. He told me this when I visited them in Delhi in Sep 2005. I found Amma to be a little quieter. She showed some signs of memory loss (asked where Didi was and then recalled that she lived in another house). But Papa insisted that she was mostly ok and this was just aging. He was a very tough person and wanted to appear even tougher to his children who lived far away so they did not worry. Amma was a fun loving person, too. The three of us drove to India gate and had ice cream. It was, looking back, the last fun thing we did together. My husband visited in Dec 2005 and they celebrated the parents wedding anniversary with Didi’s family. Amma displayed most of her spirit and dry wit. In spite of the fun they were having, my husband felt that Papa was trying to tell him something, but could not draw it out of him. When my husband returned to the USA, he told me, ‘I guess Amma is having some memory loss but they are hanging in there’.
In those days, (2005) Amma and Papa were living by themselves in an apartment in East Delhi. Amma was 81 and Papa was 90. They were tough, independent people. All through Amma’s cancer treatment they handled the doctor visits to a hospital over 20 km away without help. This was not a small feat in Delhi traffic.
Before I describe how Amma’s condition progressed, I’d like to digress a bit to explain the sibling relationships here, because these created unfortunate dynamics later and affected Amma’s care.
Didi (my husband’s sister) had a stressful life trying to earn a living for herself and her family by giving tuitions. My husband and I had helped her financially for many years, including financing her children’s education. This had strained our relationship and resentment was building up towards ‘the rich brother and sister-in-law’ who had nothing to worry about. In their mind we had a perfect life in the US – quite luxurious, and no financial responsibility as we did not have children.
Bhaiyya (my husband’s brother) lived in the US. My husband had put him through graduate school in the US, and supported his family financially for several years. So there was the suppressed resentment from his side also towards us.
Around 2005, when Amma and Papa were living separately, and Amma had started showing some signs of disorientation, their face-to-face interactions with the three children were limited.
Didi was living in Dwarka, the other end of Delhi. She visited Amma and Papa about once a month and spent half a day with them. Bhaiyya would call Amma and Papa about once a week and talk for 15 minutes. He visited India once in six years because it was too expensive to travel with a wife and children.
We talked to Amma and Papa at least 3 to 4 times a week. Papa would stay with the same story about Amma. When we tried talking to Didi to find out more, she told us they were ‘fine’. My husband tried telling her that she should take Amma to a doctor for a checkup. She ignored it and continued with the status quo.
The turning point came in May 2006, when Didi went to an extended family function and saw Amma dressed in a non matching salwar kameez. This made her take notice as Amma was ‘looking bad’ in front of so many other relatives. She talked to Papa and the truth started to emerge. In the last few months, Amma had been unable to take a bath herself. She had no awareness of personal hygiene and would go out with uncombed hair. Papa finally told us that she would wake up in the middle of the night and get violent with him. All these symptoms were disturbing and completely new to us – we did not know what was happening to Amma.
She was diagnosed with having Alzheimer’s Disease, something we probably knew at the back of our minds, something my husband had been saying for some time, and I did not want to believe.
What followed was a traumatic time for the entire family. It was difficult to persuade Amma to go to a doctor – when she was taken to VIMHANS on a pretext, her first reaction was accusing ‘You people have brought me to a mental hospital’. She was diagnosed with having Alzheimer’s Disease, something we probably knew at the back of our minds, something my husband had been saying for some time, and I did not want to believe. Various medications were prescribed for this, the most notable one being Aricept.
It was quite clear that Amma and Papa could not live alone any more. We managed to convince a very reluctant Papa to move to Dwarka to be close to Didi. This happened in Dec 2006. He still wanted to live independently, just be in a flat close by.
The move, though unavoidable, made Amma’s condition deteriorate more rapidly. She was apprehensive about changing her home. By the time she got to the new place, she was unaware of her new surroundings. She stopped recognizing family members though she had some spurts of recognition. It seemed like the change in environment had impacted her negatively. There was a paid caregiver assigned to taking care of her and preparing the food. Papa had taken over supervising the caregiver and managing the house. Didi visited and checked on them when she could. We, along with US based Bhaiyya, were paying the rent for the house, and for all the household and medical expenses.
I visited Delhi in Apr 2007. It was a shock to see Amma even though I had been adequately warned on the phone. Though she had lost the power of recognition, she could be very animated if someone talked to her. She lived in her own reality, an extension of the life she had led. It showed me that if a person in this condition could be kept engaged, their quality of life could be better. Papa was running ragged but as tough as he could be. He insisted on taking care of Amma, and giving her the medicines himself, something we were no longer confident he could do. We had already had an earlier episode of him giving her the wrong dosage. This posed another challenge of care giving – two old people living together where one (Papa) could not and would not be separated from the other. They were living their destiny together.
This posed another challenge of care giving – two old people living together where one (Papa) could not and would not be separated from the other. They were living their destiny together.
In early May 2007, the paid caregiver left Amma and Papa alone in the house and took off for hours. Papa tried to help Amma out of bed and they both fell. As a result of the stress, he had a severe asthmatic attack. He was always very careful about his health, but his lungs had been getting weaker in the recent years. They called Didi, who rushed them both to the ICU. And we got a call, one we would not forget for a long time. My husband was coincidentally leaving for India in a day (looking back maybe it was fate?). Soon after he got there, Papa passed away, no longer having the energy to keep going. He was 92 and had stoically taken care of his wife during her illnesses for over six years.
Until now my husband, Didi, and Bhaiyya had been talking – any resentment between the siblings was well hidden. Things took a dramatic turn after Papa’s death. It became about control and stress about assets, though there were not that many assets to fight about. Papa’s will transferred all assets to Amma, who was unable to act on her behalf. Their bank accounts did not have any nominees, so were essentially frozen. Being overseas it was difficult for us to figure out how to resolve this, and Didi had no interest in doing so. I think she knew we would continue to bear the financial responsibility of taking care of Amma and eventually their assets would go to her and her two siblings, the direct heirs. This way her share would not be depleted. She also probably thought that her brothers would relinquish their share to her as they ‘would not need it’, which probably would have been true had the relationships not deteriorated. It pains me to say this as I write this, but unfortunately we had enough reasons to come to this conclusion.
But we could not take Amma to the US – once again we were confronted with the consequences of the choices we had made by moving that far away.
Amma had a bigger setback after the fall. She lost mobility and now had to be moved to stay with Didi. Didi had never treated her very well and this was the last thing Amma would have wanted. But we could not take Amma to the US – once again we were confronted with the consequences of the choices we had made by moving that far away. My husband agonized about it a lot. I tried to console myself with the fact that at least she was not aware of what was happening to her. But of course she was, at some level. A few days after her fall, Amma contracted a urinary infection, developed a potassium imbalance and had to be hospitalized. After being in critical condition, she recovered somewhat and returned home. But this time she was unable to swallow and had a feeding tube inserted in her. All this happened in the space of two weeks after Papa passed away.
Even the doctors started saying that her condition was terminal and using a feeding tube was unnecessarily prolonging her life. Didi felt that she could not bear to remove it. To be honest, even today I cannot begin to imagine what it would feel like to have to make that decision. I can just quote something a friend of mine, who initially worked in nursing in the US, told me – ‘at some point it is not about what you feel and how it would affect you, it is about not making them unnecessarily suffer if there really is no hope’. As we saw, it was easier said than done.
In the United States, a lot has been written and discussed about end of life decisions, living wills etc. I don’t think it is that common in India. Amma did not have one but we knew her spirit – she would never have wanted to prolong her life like this. My husband felt very strongly about this – he also reiterated that Amma had told him in one of her coherent states (before the fall) that she did not want to live any more. Since there was no written statement, the jury will remain out as to her exact wishes. One could only surmise them.
We were the ‘evil ones’ who did not want Amma to live.
The relationship of my husband with his siblings went progressively downhill after this. We were the ‘evil ones’ who did not want Amma to live. In Jan 2008 my husband visited India to meet Amma. I visited a couple of months later, in March 2008–seeing Amma in that condition was something I would not wish on anyone. My husband made a trip again in early May 2008 by which time her condition was worse. We also felt Didi was spending money with complete disregard to budgeting, as it was not her money. Didi accused my husband of being unpleasant and interfering. It did not seem possible to have any meeting ground, and the brother and sister were barely on speaking terms.
Amma remained on a feeding tube for one year. It was removed by Didi three weeks before she finally passed away, at the end of May 2008. It was an agonizing time for my husband and I, but we could not find a better answer. All the siblings had to agree before something drastic like removing the tube could be done. We got news of her passing away through a text message – neither Bhaiyya nor Didi had even bothered to call us.
Today, almost three years later, my husband, his sister, and his brother, are still not talking. The distribution of Amma and Papa’s limited assets has still not happened, as we deal with processing of a succession certificate in Indian courts. All we want to do now is honor their memory. Without going into details about this, we feel betrayed by the way Didi handled this affair.
What are the lessons I take away from this? Would we have done anything differently? Here are some of my thoughts:
- If you have very independent parents, as they age, maintaining their independence versus having them move in with you because they need help, becomes a fine line. By the time my in- laws desperately needed help, we could not get them their preferred kind of help, and they ended up depending on Didi. It was too late to have them come live with us.
- I am aware that when parents move in with one of their children at a younger age, it poses its own challenges – I hear that from friends. The younger people feel constrained and in some cases find the older people interfering. The older people have their own opinions about how the younger ones lead their lives. Some old people are not very nice to their children and daughters-in-law etc. It is not always possible for everyone to get along. But I would hope that most younger people would soften, as they see their parents get more vulnerable as they age, and then want to take care of them. I was a strong proponent of my ‘independence’ when I was younger. Today I feel it would be a small price to pay if I could make the later years of the life of my own parents better. I have also observed from watching friends and relatives who have taken care of aging parents while they live with them, that this ends up being the best thing for the parent though it is of course often very hard for the younger people who are caregivers.
- These days, at least in the USA, we have more counseling help available on how to handle an Alzheimer’s/dementia patient. But when that patient is living with their spouse, controlling the behavior of the spouse becomes equally difficult. They are the same age group with less control over their responses and reflexes. There are no easy answers to this.
All personal paid care givers, nursing attendants require tight supervision. Having them know that they are accountable to a younger person may help somewhat. Without assigning blame, the neglect displayed by the paid caregiver proved to be a costly one for us. She felt she had complete control of the house with two old people in it – there was not enough accountability.
In fact I would say that this whole area of hired caregivers needs to be addressed (a topic for another write-up) – we could have personal online reviews of agencies to start with, for example.
- We have to find ways to have parents communicate all their problems clearly early so help can be obtained. It is very generous of them to not want to bother their children, but they have to be persuaded that letting them know everything is the right thing. I find that older people get even more diffident in their communication. In my in-laws’ case, I think Amma and Papa might have been comfortable taking help from my husband and me, but we were far away, so they did not want to trouble us. They were not so comfortable with their daughter, and their pride and self-respect prevented them from asking Didi for help except in desperate situations. They were hurt by her indifference and had become sensitive.
- As loved ones start aging (I use that term because this could happen to anyone, not only old parents) we need to remain observant about changes in behavior and health conditions. That may help in detecting problems early. In Amma’s case, I believe all of us were in denial for some time about an upcoming serious problem. It is too scary to confront, but somehow one has to find a way to persuade the person going through it, that it will help them. In her case, given the treatments available today, treatment a year earlier may not have helped the inevitable progression. But in the future there may be other options. All the symptoms Amma had were new to us and we learnt as we went along. We started educating ourselves as we went through it. Years after Amma reported losing her sense of smell, I read an article describing the fact that this could be an early sign of Alzheimer’s. It seems like new things are being discovered about this, which is encouraging.
- Above, I have included some background about sibling dynamics to analyze for myself what caused the relationship to deteriorate to a point of no return. Maybe some things are very specific to our family situation. Though we were not able to, I believe one should try one’s best to keep sibling relationships at a workable level.
- End of life decisions, however tough, should be discussed at a time when it is not emotional, which is as early as possible. Make a living will by the time you are 50. Ideally don’t let what happened to Amma in the last year of her life happen to a loved one.
- In conclusion I would like to dedicate this to Amma and Papa. Their indomitable fighting spirit and courage through the ordeals will always be an inspiration to us.
End of life decisions, however tough, should be discussed at a time when it is not emotional, which is as early as possible.
Thanks for sharing, Sarla!
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.