dementia, attachment, letting go

Over the last several years, as my mother slips deeper into a confused state of lost/ jumbled/ false memories and becomes disabled for “activities of daily living”, I have simplified my communication style as well as content to match what I think she can manage. But a few days ago, when I returned from a talk on Buddhism, she asked me where I had gone and I told her. Then, she asked me what the “doctor” said, and I realized she meant the teacher, and I told her.

The conversation that followed was amazing.

I told her that Buddhism offers a model that encourages us to understand what suffering is, its true causes, and a rational way to stop suffering. I mentioned “attachment” as one of the reasons for suffering.

“I am not attached to any thing,” she said.

I gaped at her. Frankly, I had not expected her to ‘participate’ by self-analysis, and of course, I don’t think anyone is free of attachment. I definitely am not. “Is that so?” I said.

She pointed to a plaster of Paris bust of Lord Buddha that she bought about fifty years ago. “See that? I like it, I like looking at it, but if it falls and breaks tomorrow, I will not feel bad.  It is breakable and so it broke.”

I wasn’t done gaping yet. Her sentences had a coherence I associate with a normal conversation with a peer. “Oh?” was all I managed to say.

“But I am very attached to the maids,” she said.

We have had, over the last few years, a succession of girls who have helped me take care of her, and also a whole bunch of girls to do housework.  They quit, a replacement comes, the cycle goes on. My mother never manages to remember their names or faces, she muddles up their characteristics, complains about them based on imagined problems and jumbled memories, accuses them of stuff, gets angry.  Attached? No way.

My mother pointed to the floor. “See this? I am attached to its being clean. I worry that if a maid does not come, to safai kaun karega? (then who will clean it?) Who will do the other work? How will I manage if no one does the work?”

My mother’s attention span finished with that, and she switched to a six piece jigsaw puzzle. But I am still thinking about the conversation. Not just did she understand that attachment can be to things, she went a step further on her own to apply ‘attachment’ to a concept, a state of affairs and the expectation of availability of people who make it possible. Heck, that’s the attachment we all have and don’t even notice. Like expecting electricity, water, food…

My mother has never been religious, but philosophy was much the talk of the house as I grew up.  Often colleagues and friends would drop by and have extensive discussions on stuff like Theosophy and Jiddu Krishnamurthi and all that. My mother was very well read and articulate. A few days ago, I glimpsed the old her again, but with an improvement. In her younger version, she never admitted to any imperfection. She never used her life as an example for any imperfection type of concept — she was more about picking holes in others 🙂

I came away thinking, this quality of conversation is not usual even when I talk to peers.

I have often read about people who suffer major setbacks and who find a thread of personal growth in them, emerging as stronger and better persons. They say, “my cancer made me a better person”, “my accident made me a better person”, “my divorce made me a better person.” (They go on tours, set up life mentorship systems and write books, too) I have felt about myself: my caregiving responsibility has helped me grow in ways I had never imagined.

But I have not heard anyone say: my dementia has made me a better person. I had not thought it could be true. Maybe it can. Maybe, free of the cluttered memories, the person sometimes glimpses what lies under the “I” chatter of the mind. Denuded of all we consider necessary to exist — memories that define us, abilities that give us the illusion that we are ‘independent’ — maybe there is a core of growth possible. Maybe, if they could string together the words some of the patients would say, my dementia has made me a better person. Or even, my dementia has made me go beyond being a person.

For a while now, I have understood that every event in life can be accepted and integrated into personal growth. It is not something I manage to do often enough, but the possibility shines before me, and sometimes I avail it. I have known that caregiving allows me to build empathy, acceptance, compassion. Watching my mother’s personality unraveling had reminded me how elusive a sense of identity is, how frail, how dependent on what you remember.

And this conversation has shown me that maybe there is even more I can learn from my mother, from what she is managing to think, understand, and accept in her state. You know, I am not that scared of dementia any more.

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About Swapna Kishore
I'm a writer, blogger, and resource person for dementia/ caregiving in India, and deeply concerned about dementia care in India. On this blog I share my own caregiving journey, my experiences as a resource person for dementia care, and musings on life, aging, dementia in India, and such sundries. More about me and the work I do for dementia care in this set of pages:

2 Responses to dementia, attachment, letting go

  1. austere says:

    I am.

    have read this a few times on my reader feed but am unable to comment.

    empathy, compassion, learning – at what price?

    • Swapna says:

      I see your point.

      It’s not that I expect anyone would *want* to have dementia or opt for caregiving, but if that is what life deals us, I think this perspective makes accepting and moving with grace more possible. It gets rid of the “poor me” if the situation happens. It also reduces the “fear factor” when we see others in the state, or think or read about them.

      As for the price of learning…I spent 18 years of student life (the most creative years, the years where I had most energy) learning stuff I hardly use. Triple Integrals? Bessemer process? Which litmus color means what? The policies of Akbar the Great? What use are they to me today? The way I see it now is, empathy and compassion have more direct dividends on the quality of one’s real life, and the life of people around. They are always relevant, always adding to one’s peace of mind.

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