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Saturday, May 3, 2008

Pater Noster

Coping with Alzheimer’s

It’s been less than a fortnight since my mother died. In the interim, my 87-year old father has spent an unsettled time. In the pink of health, he nevertheless suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. His brain cannot deal with current affairs and causes him to go rambling into the past. He remembers things from the 1950s and 1960s and earlier but when it comes to the present, he is all at sea.

For partly selfish reasons, we brought him to our house in Goa against the advice of a psychiatrist. We had things to do and we needed to escape from the aura of death in our Delhi home. One airplane trip, a tour of the house and fruit-filled garden, a simple home-cooked meal, an ice cream on Baga beach and my dad seemed to perk up. He was excited by the old-style doors and windows and the antique furniture in our house; he marveled at the wells, the trees laden with guava, chickoo, mango and coconut…drinking it all in, wonderstruck.

“Very nice…just like the old days,” he kept repeating. He was struck by the waves breaking on the beach, the lights, and the music. “This is wonderful,” he said over and over again as we finally dragged ourselves away from St Anthony’s Bar and Restaurant at 10 pm. I was beside myself with joy. In the days after my mother’s death, he had drifted, anchorless without his constant companion; like Keats' knight: “alone and palely loitering.”

Now that he lives with us, I think we can light up his life with experiences he has never had in his austere existence. His only interest was travel and so the Goa sojourn opened up a corner of clarity in his Alzheimer-jumbled mind. It was a gamble to whisk him away to Goa. We were worried he might fall apart in the strange new environment. But he seems to have flowered; giving me hope that I could, in the remainder of his life, shower him with care and comfort.

The next day we took him to a supermarket to buy him toiletries. I have always known him to be a frugal, even parsimonious man. He saves things rather than use them. A few months ago at his house in Ahmedabad, I found in his closet unused bottles of after shave lotion and several shirts I had presented him nearly 15 years ago. After we reached our home in Goa, I saw his toiletry kit, which was indescribably modest including two throwaway shaving razors that were past their prime at least five years ago. That’s when we went to the store to buy him new supplies.

He was delighted to receive them and kept rummaging in the bag and looking at his new things through the car journey back home. Promptly, he squirreled them away into his suitcase. Knowing his abstemious mindset, I threw away all his past due date toiletries. The next morning and I don't know how, he retrieved his old shaving razor from the waste basket. However, my hope stayed kindled in that he has started using his new stuff; it is a minor victory in my battle to change his ways.

I am no psychiatrist but I feel that as a man alone now, he has a chance to experience new things, especially ease and choice that he long denied himself. My belief is that the new lifestyle might slow down his steady and inevitable mental decline. Nobody really understands Alzheimer’s. There have been many attempts to research and explain the disease in genetic and medical terms. In my layman’s view, it is about individuals, who have been misfits and therefore turned to simplistic views about life: their definitions of success and their existential happenstance.

The late Ronald Reagan is a classic example. He started out as an actor, never succeeded, got into screen politics, waltzed into the position of the governor of America’s golden state, California and went on to become a two-term occupant of the White House. For all the mythmaking, Reagan was never really cut out for the job and only acted the part…and that too in a B-grade performance. On his watch, certain earth-shaking events took place, primarily the implosion of the Soviet Union. He is revered today for starting a conservative revolution in the United States; his acolytes claim the credit for re-ordering the world.

Whatever Reagan did, he slipped into the personal hell of Alzheimer’s. My view is that his simplistic, black-and-white view of the world left no room for critical assessments. I can see the same happening to my father. He told my wife, “I don’t read because I did all the reading that was needed to top all my exams. Why should I clutter up my mind with useless things?” To add to that, he had no friends, no interests: literature or music or art or theater or even television, cricket and cinema. Alzheimer’s came later; his blankness dates back nearly 40 years, which is 10 years before he retired from his job as a senior government official.

The biggest tragedy in dealing with my father is we have to forget my mother. Already, he is certain that the fuss and the funeral had to do with his mother, who died 42 years ago, when he was just 45. He has no remembrance; at least not that is publicly expressed that his wife is gone, just 20 days short of their 60th wedding anniversary.

In the 12 days since my mother went away, I have grown to be the 59 years that I am. Until April 21, I felt I was just 19.

copyright rajiv desai 2008