Pattern spotting

Yesterday, I wrote: “…the most prominent mistake I made in the earlier days was force-fitting patterns instead of looking afresh at facts, and seeing intention where the cause was confusion. ”

Analyzing, introspecting, recognizing patterns is an ability I’ve always tried to nurture and improve. I have assumed that these are good and important, and the best way to navigate life. Yet pattern-seeking backfired on me for the caregiving aspect of my life.

Here, for example, is one small but indicative incident (this was well before my mother was diagnosed).

My mother’s balance problems were very marked, and often, as she stood or walked, she would lurch and sway and stumble/ fall. This would happen anywhere, and she’d grab at whatever she could. Once, when she was in the kitchen, she grabbed at a knife on the kitchen counter, ouch! 😦

So naturally, we were very concerned that she would hurt herself, and especially worried about being near the gas stove, where the pallu of her saree could easily catch fire if such an incident happened. As a result, I had asked her not to work in the kitchen in my absence.

Usually, the milk was delivered early morning at our doorstep. I’d boil it before my morning walk, but this particular day, I’d put on my walking shoes when the milk came. I hesitated, but it seemed silly to delay the walk for a chore I could as well do later. I was placing the packets in the fridge when my mother saw me, and I told her I’d boil the milk when I returned a half-hour later. The milk was not needed for anything before that, anyway. Seeing her frown at the milk packets, I reminded her that working alone in the kitchen was dangerous given her balance problem, and not to worry, this could be handled when I returned.

As you may have guessed, when I returned home after my walk, the boiled milk was sitting on the dining table for cooling. I stared at it, and then at my mother, who was leaning against the wall, and looking at me with a very funny expression. To me that expression seemed like that of someone proving to me that look, “You can’t order me around.” Or maybe even, “Look, I had to boil it because you didn’t, you lazy girl.”

“Why did you boil it?” I asked, speaking as evenly as I could (but I am sure it carried some agitation). “I’d said I’ll do it when I returned. It was just a matter of half-an-hour. You know working in the kitchen could be dangerous; there is fire there and you can fall and because you wear a saree–”

“I boiled the milk,” she said. “So what?” And her face twisted some more.


“I’ll boil the milk when I want. Yeh mera ghar hai. Tum beti ho, beti ban kar raho (This is my house. You are a daughter; learn to live like a daughter).”

I said nothing, but I fumed all day long. I had moved in with my mother after my father died, because she had said she could not live alone and asked me to move in. I hadn’t moved in because, in my mid-forties I suddenly craved to be delegated to a subordinate position with her as “head-of-family”. I was sure she’d boiled the milk only to show me she’s the boss, and her statements afterwards seemed to confirm this.

Nothing really “fight-like” happened. I did not yell, nor did she. We didn’t even argue. But in this incident, and many such small incidents, I sensed a pattern where her actions were intended to show me she’s boss.

If I suggested something which made sense and which she agreed to, and she later did something quite contrary, I fitted it into this “model”. When I tried to explain why I’d asked her to do/ not to do something, or asked her why she did/ didn’t do something, she’d not give a reply; I saw that as shrugging me off as unimportant or as someone not to be listened to. Sometimes she even claimed that I’d not said anything to her earlier, but when she spoke her face had that twisted expression that I assumed was a cover for power politics or lies.

Sometimes, people who have age or authority on their side say things they know are wrong, secure in the knowledge that a junior cannot pin them for that lie because of that “respect.” It is a form of bullying and power play. My mother had, in her younger days, been a very forceful personality who would brook no argument or contrary opinion and always insisted that she could say and do what she wanted and that I, being her daughter, was obliged to obey.

That milk-boiling day was, for me, an encore of that attitude. Her expression was new, but I ignored that evidence. Everything else was close enough to the old pattern.

There were other such incidents. The day she decided to make roties at 11 am, well before I was scheduled to make them, because I had gone out to the bank. “How could I know you will return?” she said, when I reminded her that I’d told her clearly I’d be back in half an hour. I pegged that, too, to some sort of stubbornness/ show-you-can’t-boss-me attitude.

I can see now that I was wrong. This and such incidents were probably early indications of her memory loss. That expression was one of confusion, the actions done because she’d genuinely forgotten why she wasn’t supposed to cook, and her remarks later a cover-up.

Also, in my pattern-fitting, I ignored one aspect of my mother’s personality in my rush to reach the “she did it to show me down” conclusion. The fact was, my mother did not take any risks when it came to her health. As the only daughter who survived in a home where her mother and two sisters succumbed to TB, my mother was used to taking precautions to remain safe, even precautions that seemed extreme. If she had remembered/ understood the danger of working near the stove, she would not have done so.

A year or so earlier, my mother had given up driving. Just like that, out of the blue, one day. She had always loved driving, because of the sense of independence it gave her. She was an excellent driver, too. Then one day, she came and handed me the keys saying she didn’t want to drive any more, because while driving that day, she’d felt a wave of disorientation. She didn’t want to cause an accident. True to her word, she never drove after that day, not even to the local market.

Would such a person have worked near the fire if she’d remembered the danger?

I think what happened was that she forgot her balance problem, or forgot that it could pose a danger while cooking. She may have remembered it midway or later, but it may not have occurred to her to stop. Or she saw stopping at that stage shameful, like admitting that she forgot something. Possibly she was  frightened that she had forgotten something, and that increased her confusion. That twisted expression was not of defiance, it was perhaps a person hiding her fright and confusion, scared she’s be labeled mad. My mother had this great fear that people who do not behave “properly” are “going mad” (maybe there was a childhood incident behind that).

Whatever, my mother probably knew but did not want to admit to memory gaps or problems understanding things.

Perhaps things would have been different if she’d not been somewhat scared or contemptuous of people who behaved oddly. If there was a general awareness and acceptance that some organic brain diseases cause such problems.

Here’s a thought for all of us:  if society accepted such problems in a matter-of-fact way and continued to respect the patients, wouldn’t many more persons admit to their problems much earlier and in time to act? Early recognition of the problem would allow the patient and family to gear up for the future. Some medications are effective in early stages of cognitive decline; they may not reduce the problem, but they help manage the symptoms.When I read accounts written by patients (outside India) in their early stages of dementia, I really feel sad that we in India don’t yet have an environment where people can share that they are facing such problems.

I took her bluster (probably her attempt to hide her fear and bewilderment) as a negative attitude consistent with her old over-assertive ways.  Would I have sensed something if I’d known of other possible interpretations that could apply given her age> If my mind had been open, not biased by past “patterns”…

She must have been so frightened, thinking she was “losing her mind” and not being able to talk about it.

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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:

One Response to Pattern spotting

  1. Pingback: Not letting the tears go waste… « Swapna writes…

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