How My Grandmother's Dementia Altered Our Experience Of This Pandemic

How My Grandmother's Dementia Altered Our Experience Of This Pandemic

Coping with the thought of a lockdown amid a deadly pandemic was unbelievably challenging. You and me, we would take it one day at a time, prepare ourselves for the possibilities of tomorrow and equip our minds and bodies for a somewhat plan-of-action. And although my grandmother and I live under the same roof, it seemed as if she was doing none of this, living a completely separate life to me.

5.3 million Indians over the age of 60 had dementia in 2020. My grandmother is one of them, and forgetting that every new day was still pandemic-ridden, she woke up with a need for a daily reminder to not step out because a fatal virus is at loose. In 2020, when we were making peace with the pandemic, she and others like her would have to live each day as if the previous didn’t bring in death, despair, and an all-encompassing hollow feeling.

Pre-pandemic, her daily routine included three meals, two walks, and countless cups of chai. Soon enough, this was tainted by our well-meaning restriction for her strolls, and a barrage of “Aaj bhi COVID hai kya?” (Is there COVID today, too?). When I ask her to recall the time we first went into lockdown circa March 2020, she stares into the distance with utmost concentration. After I give her a brief recap, she says, “Uss time pe toh bohot uneasy feel hua, kuch pata hi nahi tha kya ho raha hai” (I felt very uneasy at the time, I did not understand what was going on). She scours her entire vocabulary to think of a word that could describe what she felt but fails.

Our mornings would go in explaining and re-explaining to her that we are living through a pandemic. From the symptoms of COVID to government-instated restrictions, we repeated ourselves with an almost prepared lowdown every day. Admittedly, it did ruffle us to have to go on the same spiel again and again but we also knew it was inevitable. For her, it was like receiving the news of the pandemic multiple times a day, every day, all with the same amount of shock and fear. Previous days were automatically erased, and the coming ones were going to be no different.

Mujhe drawing karne se shaanti hoti hai,” (I am at peace when I draw) she tells me after she ponders over my question: What helps you?

If you were to take a look at her stack of artwork, you would think you have entered the room of a 7-year-old. All pieces pumped with colour (it was evident that pink is her favourite) were presented to us each evening with a proud smirk across her face. Another source of comfort for her seemed to be a newfound love for coffee – but four cups of it per day! To date, we struggle to get her to cut this monstrous amount down to one cup.

She also repeatedly questions, “Iska koi ilaaj nahi hai kya?” (Is there no cure for this?), but we are unsure if she asks to understand the gravity of the situation, or is simply eager to continue her twice-a-day walks. Those dedicated hours of the day turned to what I can only describe as ‘gossip sessions with her friends from back home in Thrissur, Kerala. 40-minute calls accompanied by raucous laughter became her way of adapting to the ‘new normal’, and I am able to call it that because I see, know, and understand a pandemic, while she, in 2022, is clueless.

On the occasions we could venture out, she devoured the food put in front of her – chhole bhature, ice cream, and cappuccinos – all gone in the blink of an eye. I wonder, was she really that hungry or did she know in her heart these opportunities had become all too rare?

My grandmother is not her dementia, but an extensive collection of likes and dislikes, experiences, and (some) memories. She handles it slightly better now. Perhaps it’s the fact that it has been almost three years or the fact that she pays more attention, or maybe both. We continue to explain, and she continues to listen every single day.

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