Murderers, thieves, and an old woman amidst them

Fear that she’ll be cheated or attacked were one common thread my mother showed, often based on things totally ordinary, or on imagined events or projections.

I remember I was once doing my strength exercises and lifting a barbell with some effort (okay, a lot of effort). As I lowered it with obvious relief, I noticed my mother at the door of the room, watching me. “Yeh kya mujhe maarne ke liye practice kar rahi ho?” she asked me. (Are you practising this to be able to hit me?). I was totally nonplussed, and could not even mutter a “No.”

Another time, out of the blue, she said, “I know you killed your father.” I had been standing in the kitchen, cooking, and I spun around, the ladle still in my hand. “What!!??” She said, “You killed him. You told me yourself.”

What does one do in such a case? In that fraction of a minute till she walked back to her room, I could not react. I mean, what does one say, “I am not a killer?” Which memory and events had she twisted and strung together in her mind to give her that impression? Possibly a TV serial and a stray sentence she’d heard and also stuff she’d dreamed.

What would I do if she went around telling others?

I quickly ran through the facts: my father had died in the hospital at a time I had not been there. My husband, a cousin, and several doctors had been there. The death was caused by his choking on his vomit, or some such thing. There was no way I could be blamed for it. But it was frightening to think how scared I was at that moment, at that totally unfounded accusation. What if she told others? I kept worrying. What if they, even in part, believed her? What would they do if they believed it? How could I make her stop believing this? Stop talking about it?

I must admit I didn’t even for a moment think of how scared she may be feeling if she thought I was a murderer and she was dependent on me. I didn’t pause to think how it must be to live in that sort of reality; my concern was only how it affected me.

As it happens, I did nothing about it; I could think of nothing to do. I continued to fear that if she told people, they may even believe it, or at least, they may not rule it out completely as imagination. No smoke without fire, they’d say.

Dementia patients retain their social skills even as their memory starts failing them. In short interactions their memory loss and disorientation is not obvious; they manage to hide it well. She could sound coherent enough while telling people how cruel I am, even a killer.

Even today, I can’t think of what I could have done. It was pointless telling her I hadn’t done anything; everyone always claims to be innocent, right?

The only thing I can say is, things would be simpler if everyone around us understood that such accusations are common in dementia. Then they could listen to them and know them to be part of her condition. Maybe people would even give her the gentle acceptance she wanted to help her come out of such fears more easily. And they would not believe her.

Another thing I could have done was remove her TV, the source of this and many accusations.

My mother could not separate the over-dramatic TV stereotype-encouraging TV stories with real life; those stories, with their rages and tears and drama stirred her emotions and kept them stirred. I read some research recently how patients with dementia remain disturbed far longer than normal persons after seeing an emotional scene in a movie; they are not able to get out of it emotionally because of their condition.

Another problem those days was that she would often misplace objects and then accuse people of stealing things. Or remember things owned long ago, not find them, and then claim they’d been stolen.

We had got two maids: one for the normal housework, and one to assist my mother for her walking. A typical incident would run like this: My mother would claim that her watch was missing. The maids would panic, and get busy shrugging off blame and implying the other maid must have stolen the watch. I would spend hours hunting and finally locate the watch in the soapcase or under the mattress or inside the spectacle case or fridge freezer some such place. Ditto search missions for the nail-cutter (somehow, for some reason, she loved hiding that), the TV remote, the pen, the spectacles.

My mother had some jewelry which was in an old tin biscuit box in her cupboard. She also had the original house papers in that cupboard. One day I saw a heap of torn papers on her table, and asked her what they were. Turned out she’d opened her cupboard and found some papers she could not understand, so she tore them up. I rushed to the cupboard, terrified. Fortunately, the house papers were intact; what she had torn were some old FD certificates and other such things. Alarmed by the accusations she so easily made, and the way she destroyed what she didn’t recognize, I moved off the jewelry and original certificates to a different cupboard. I replaced the papers with color photocopies, so she did not know, but the jewelry was tricky, because she suspected me, too. I had to finally tell her it was in a bank locker for safety and give her a “locker key” to keep safely.

Of course, my searches now involved finding this locker key 🙂

It is horrible for a person to be accused of a crime. When my mother, in those days and later, would accuse the maids of stealing her stuff, they would really get very worried. I would tell them that I knew they hadn’t taken anything, but the problem was that my mother would tell neighbors, too. They were scared of being branded thieves. People do not look for facts always; accusations, unsubstantiated with facts, are enough to make someone unemployable. No one would come to verify with me whether my mother’s accusations were true. They would just decide not to take a risk and employ this maid of doubtful reputation.

It is easy to see now that my mother was scared and insecure, surrounded by thieves and murderers, finding her abilities reducing and not being sure she’d be taken care of. But she had closed herself against us and reason could not penetrate, either, and we around her were coping with her unexpected and extreme emotions and actions, and also the impact of her complaints to neighbors and relatives…

Lonely and scared times for all concerned…

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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 Murderers, thieves, and an old woman amidst them

  1. Pingback: Reshaping career and identity « Swapna writes…

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