Newspaper Coverage of Dementia in India: An Exploratory Analysis (Part 2)

This blog post is part 2 of a two-part series on newspaper coverage of dementia in India. (read part 1 here)

Background: I had undertaken an exploratory study of the dementia/ Alzheimer coverage in the top Hindi and English newspapers to see how existing coverage may contribute to awareness/ support. In part 1, I documented my selection of newspapers how I gathered articles, and some initial analysis based on quantities (read part 1 here). In this post, part 2, I share my content analysis and suggestions.

Topics of this blog post:

Approach to assessing a published piece

For my content analysis, the reader profiles and the possible desirable outcomes I considered were:

  • The (uninterested) general public: Typically persons who know nothing or very little about dementia. They may have seen persons with dementia symptoms, but and are not looking actively looking for information, and may not find the information useful. Desirable outcomes for this profile are increased alertness towards symptoms, better diagnosis-seeking behavior, and more supportive attitudes towards families living with dementia.
  • The solution-seekers: These are persons who are concerned about dementia, typically because they or someone close to them has dementia. They are likely to read anything connected with dementia and will probably notice the word even if it is buried deep in an article. Desirable outcomes for these persons are better ability to live with and support dementia, reduced stress, reduced sense of isolation, and more willingness to share their experiences.

For the analysis, I looked at the full set of articles using two different perspectives.

  • The various types of articles, the proportion in which these types appeared, and their typical coverage of dementia.
  • The aspects relevant for spreading dementia awareness and information in the public, and checking how effective the existing coverage was with respect to each such aspect.

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Perspective 1: Article types found, the relative proportions, and the way they cover dementia

Types of articles mentioning dementia :

Hindi English
Wellness/ study reports 142 (61%) 185 (44%)
Event related articles 32 (14%) 40 (10%)
News articles mentioning dementia 24 (10%) 150 (36%)
General articles 33 (14%) 34 (8%)
Others 3 (1%) 10 (2%)
Total 234 articles (3 newspapers, all years)(100%) 419 articles (3 newspapers, only 2015) (100%)

Articles related to wellness/ health/ miracle-advance in medicine/ research studies: This was the largest category of articles, both in Hindi and in English. The percentage of articles in this category was higher in Hindi than in English (61% compared to 44%) as shown in the table alongside. Most of these contained only the words dementia/ Alzheimer’s or a small phrase about them, mainly focusing on memory loss. Some had sensational, confusing, or misleading titles or content. A few contained a bit more detail, but often these were complicated and buried.

Announcements/ reports of events and inaugurations around Alzheimer’s, or some related field (e.g., geriatrics). These typically related to World Alzheimer’s Day functions, conferences, release of reports, and were mostly in the months of September/ October. These formed 10-14% of the articles in both Hindi and English (see table). Article scope was often a mix of things such as names of experts, event venue and topics talked about, dementia statistics, etc. Some also included layperson-friendly information on dementia symptoms, risks, and the diagnosis process.

Current news articles that contained some mention of dementia. These were an assortment of celebrity news, crime news where some party had (or claimed to have) dementia, drug company news, business news, reviews and award announcements for movies, books, etc. The Hindi newspapers had a far lower percentage of articles in this category (around 10%) compared to the English newspapers, where they were a significant 36% of the total. Most such articles only contained the words (dementia or Alzheimer) or the standard phrase on ‘memory loss’.

General articles that mentioned dementia. These included personal essays, or special health features. They formed around 8-14% of the total coverage (see table). Many of them gave at least some useful information on dementia or care, and some were very useful.

Other articles that mentioned “dementia” and “Alzheimer”. These included many where these words were used as part of normal language to connote forgetfulness/ unacceptable behavior, etc. Some of these mocked politicians or complained about systems or used the words to joke. They formed around 1-2% of the total coverage in both Hindi and English.

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Perspective 2: Content effectiveness for each aspect relevant for awareness/ information

Establishing familiarity with dementia/ Alzheimer as a serious medical condition

Current newspaper coverage is encouraging in terms of basic exposure to the words, both in Hindi and English. “Dementia “and “Alzheimer” seem to have become part of lists used in wellness articles along with other serious conditions (diabetes, cancer, etc.).

Studies on dementia are being reported, too (though far less in Hindi than in English).

Exposure/ familiarity are a good foundation for an awareness drive. However, they work only if the usage is positive and if these are supplemented with availability of enough reliable and usable information.

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Information conveyed regarding salient characteristics of dementia

Around 73% of the articles only contained the word dementia (or Alzheimer) or used the context or a shorthand phrase/ context to imply one aspect of dementia.

In the Hindi pieces, the most emphasized aspect was forgetting. Other phrases indicated age-related illness and mental illness. Typical phrases were: भूलने की बीमारी, स्मृति लोप, याददाश्त की कमजोरी, स्मरणशक्ति की समस्या, बढ़ती उम्र की समस्या, दिमागी बीमारी, मानसिक बीमारी. A scant few articles mentioned brain and cognition, often using rather Sanskritized Hindi: संज्ञानात्मक (ज्ञान संबंधी) गिरावट, मानसिक क्षमता ह्रास, बोध क्षमता, संज्ञान से जुड़ा विकार, मस्तिष्क का क्षय.

Anecdotally: I asked some middle class persons what they understood by some phrases (संज्ञान , मानसिक क्षमता ह्रास, cognitive impairment, neurodegenerative disease). Many had no idea of the meaning. None of them could come up with examples of behavior changes they would be alert about. I queried about “memory loss”, and almost everyone told me they suffered from it. Misplaced keys, forgotten activities, and forgotten names of people and movies were quoted as proof.

English newspaper coverage also mainly mentioned memory loss, age-related, and mental-illness, but other phrases were fairly common, too, such as: cognitive decline, cognitive impairment, neurodegenerative disease, etc.

All in all, these one-phrase depictions don’t inform laypersons what to be alert about, or how dementia/ AD symptoms may be similar to or different from old age. Terms like memory loss and old age are too all-encompassing for practical use.

On a related note: In both English and Hindi, this over-identification with forgetfulness has some very unfortunate implications because of the tendency of people to use it to mock/stigmatize. More on this later.

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Information conveyed on dementia basics


Newspapers: a common morning sight at any shop

While many articles talked of the need to avoid getting dementia, or suggested superfoods or healthy living/ active ageing for this, they did not explain dementia symptoms, duration, progression, and challenge clearly enough or explain why it was considered serious.

  • Of the articles studied, only around 6% explained some of the dementia symptoms in friendly, understandable ways that I considered helpful to laypersons.
  • Many aspects of dementia were neglected in almost all articles, such as the duration, progressive nature, the changed and difficult behaviour, possibility of early onset, possibility of initial symptoms other than memory loss, increased dependence and reduced mobility in later stages, etc.

As pointed out earlier, the “memory loss” aspect was repeatedly emphasized. This, along with missing or minimal mention of other symptoms, resulted in very unrealistic depictions.

For example, some articles said things like “a person may even forget the names of family members” as if that was the worst that could happen, and ignored problems of later stages, like persons not being able to do even simple tasks, incontinence, inability to swallow, becoming bedridden, etc

Seriousness of dementia was conveyed using terms like “debilitating” condition, “battle”, “throes of dementia”, “afflicted” and “suffer”, but these terms, in the absence of explanations and examples, do not increase the readers’ understanding or appreciation of the difficulties of dementia.

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Information conveyed on dementia prevention/ treatment

While articles with wellness advice and general interviews with doctors included some useful tips for reducing risk, and also discussed treatment, they were also sometimes misleading in big ways and small.

  • Wellness type articles were sometimes somber and useful; others carried exaggerated claims, usually about a superfood/ super-remedy. As articles on superfoods keep getting published, this may not be a problem, as people are used to reading such claims in articles with titles like “20 uses of .”
  • Misleading presentations of study reports are more problematic. Articles often presented the result of a single study as if talking about a well-tested cure or an established medical fact.
    • Sensational headings were common and tended to be simplistic and misleading. Even if the article text was balanced, the title’s dramatic impression could linger.
    • In Hindi newspapers, many of the translated research-related articles were heavily abbreviated; they did not include the disclaimers and nuances present in the English equivalents, and hence can confuse/ mislead.
    • Some study reports were useful; they reminded us to adopt healthier lifestyles.
  • Interviews of experts (doctors, nutritionists, others) for health/ active ageing, or specific interviews for dementia.
    • Some such articles combined medical information from a doctor with non-medical advice (such as claims regarding superfoods/ herbs); combining the two in one article may be seen as approval by the expert quoted elsewhere in the article.
    • Some experts were quoted as saying that following their advice will “prevent” dementia. To most laypersons, “prevention” means never getting the disease.
    • Sometimes articles claimed (and even quote experts) that treatment will stop the disease or cure it. This could make people think dementia can be reversed.

In summary, some articles contained useful information on risk, treatment, diagnosis, but many of them also included misleading information. In articles quoting experts/ doctors, such misleading/ wrongly quoted tidbits are more believable, and hence more harmful.

Unfortunately, there were almost no articles that explicitly busted myths or squashed misleading claims or clearly and firmly corrected the misquoted expert-speak.

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Information conveyed on dementia prevalence

People take a condition more seriously if they know others with it, and can see how tough it is to cope with.

One way this sense of closeness/ immediacy is reinforced is through news items that mention that someone has dementia (a celebrity or someone else). News about creative works (movies, books, plays, etc.) that include a character with dementia also help. Even a single-word mention ( had dementia) makes dementia more “real.”

  • Articles in this category: Just 22 (around 9%) in Hindi fell in this category; there were many more (137 articles, around 33%) in English. This could be because the persons reported about in Hindi newspapers are not of the profile that admits to having dementia, or the creative works of interest to Hindi readers do not depict someone with dementia.

The possibility and challenges of dementia also hit harder through articles where families/ acquaintances describe their personal dementia-related experiences.

  • Articles in this category: I found fewer than 5 Hindi articles that presented real-life care situations (this is too low to even consider what the proportion is). The number was better in English– 30 articles, (around 7%). Such articles often involve locating and interviewing families, which means more effort. Hindi lags behind English in this.
  • Many personal stories were featured in city supplements of newspapers, not in the main newspaper, and were available only in some cities, limiting their visibility.

Prevalence is sometimes conveyed using statistics. Such mentions were often associated with event reports, and more visible in English newspapers. However, most readers don’t remember population and ageing numbers. They do not mentally convert national prevalence figures into an understanding of how prevalent dementia was in terms of people around them. These are just large numbers, and they don’t even remember the units of the numbers after some time (was it a lakh? a million? a crore?). I, therefore, do not consider such coverage effective in conveying (at an emotional level) that real people–we and those around us–can also get dementia and face major challenges.

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Information conveyed on dementia caregiving

Mention of caregiving in dementia articles, if present, was usually perfunctory and confined to platitude-filled sentences. (“They need love and care.”). Some articles included general advice on care or some tips/ comments by experts. Another source of care information was articles where people share personal stories or when a news item describes challenges that families faced because of coping with dementia.

  • Articles in this category: Around 14 (around 6%) in Hindi, and somewhat better in number/ proportion at 56 articles (around 13%) in English.
  • Even articles that carried some care-related information/ experiences did not provide a comprehensive view of care. They usually ignored aspects like the extent and type of care, and how to prepare for it. They did not mention counselling, training on care skills, resources, etc. Even collectively, they did not have enough detail for caregivers to appreciate the range of care-related work that needs to be planned for and done, and how to proceed.

The much lower coverage of the care aspect means readers don’t think about how dementia may impact the family. Seen along with other coverage gaps, newspaper coverage ends up depicting dementia as some sort of memory loss problem that can be stopped or removed using medicines and love.

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Negative factors in information conveyed–stigma/ mocking

Unfortunately, the close association established between dementia/ Alzheimer with forgetting/ confusion and with mental illness has resulted in the words being used in normal language while depicting confusion and forgetfulness.

Here, for example, are some phrases from essays on utterly unrelated topics: “When the establishment is going senile, it feels everyone else has Alzheimer’s.” or “If you have been lucky to encounter such an odd creature, what do you think is wrong with him? Senile dementia?”

Worse, dementia and Alzheimer are used to mock people, especially politicians. In one instance, some workers of one party sent Alzheimer pills to a senior leader of another party as a “unique” protest. Jokes and accusations are increasingly made about politicians having Alzheimer’s. Such pieces seem more interesting than staid interviews and fact-filled articles, and get shared and liked on social media. This usage is damaging and difficult to stop.

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Overall usefulness of articles

Many articles containing the word dementia/ Alzheimer had only the words or a phrase or so. Some had a bit more, but often not in a usable, friendly way. I consider an article useful if it gives usable information on dementia and care to laypersons without stigma, and contains a good amount of information or at least conveys one important aspect very well, and where the misleading tidbits are relatively low. My subjective assessment, summarized:

  • Both in Hindi and English, only around 9% of the articles were reasonably useful for laypersons to learn about dementia and care. However, the quality of usefulness was somewhat higher in the English articles.
  • Many articles, including useful ones, contained a least some misleading/ confusing information. I tried to locate articles where the confusing/ misleading element seemed serious enough to (in my opinion) increase the chance of harmful beliefs or decisions. I categorized 15 Hindi articles (around 6%) and 12 English articles (around 3%) as harmfully misleading. Also, some articles directly stigmatized dementia. I found 4 Hindi articles and 10 English articles in this category.
  • Note, too, that the quantity of articles in Hindi is much lower. Considering the overall picture, we have roughly 2-3 reasonably useful articles per year per newspaper in Hindi, and around 12-14 reasonably useful articles per year per newspaper in English. None of these useful articles provided comprehensive coverage. Put together, too, the total coverage misses many important aspects of dementia and care.
  • On the whole, the quality and scope of coverage of the useful English articles was better than that of the useful Hindi articles, and the misleading tidbits based on studies were fewer in English. English articles also did a better coverage of the care aspect and had more coverage that could make dementia seem more real to readers. But stigmatizing usage of the word was high.

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The daily newspaper, part of the morning ‘chai’ routine

Suggestions to improve the situation

Stop the chances of a negative information loop . Counter misleading information, debunk myths, and condemn use of dementia/ Alzheimer to mock others. Talk and write about this, and build up public opinion against such stigmatizing. Stop the tendency to mock/ stigmatize before it reaches the levels it has reached in other countries because once it sets in, it is extremely difficult to correct.

Improve the overall quality and quantity of coverage in all newspapers. Some things to consider:

  • Use every event and occasion to disseminate usable information about dementia and care in simple, understandable language.
  • When talking of dementia, take care to also convey the serious aspects of dementia and care, not just “memory loss” or initial symptoms. Talk about challenging behaviors, late stage dependency, the duration of dementia, progression, etc. Use examples and simple language.
  • Take active steps to avoid being misquoted or quoted out of context. Often reporters, because they do not understand dementia well enough, miss nuances and hence inadvertently mislead readers because of the way they frame a sentence or select sentences from a larger interview. Make the reporters’ job easier and less prone to error.
    • Provide reporters material they can directly use in sidebars and as explanations.
    • Provide reporters press-releases of events
    • For expert interviews, opt for e-interviews and ask that you be quoted verbatim, and that if any paraphrasing is done, it should be validated with you. In some cases, reporters may even agree to show you the section of the article draft pertaining to your interview, especially if the interview is a long, informal phone chat and the article is not being rushed because of a deadline.
  • Improve visibility for family experiences of living with dementia/ supporting dementia. Talk about the critical role of care, the planning and work it requires, and the support available. Help reporters locate and contact potential caregiver interviewees.
  • Some reporters/ writers have a family member with dementia. Encourage them to write general articles and help them do a good job.
  • In general, try to get useful coverage throughout the year, including coverage in the main sections of the paper and not just city supplements.

Additionally, find ways to get useful visibility for dementia in non-English newspapers. This is where bulk of the readership is. Understand how such newspapers select topics and articles, and use this to get more visibility and to spread awareness and information effectively. Some things to consider:

  • Develop terminology in Indian languages that is easy to understand, non-stigmatizing, and yet does not water down the seriousness of the problems faced in dementia. That way, reporters will have a set of words/ phrases to use and will not end up using stigmatizing words or words that trivialize the problems.
  • Try to get coverage in Indian language newspapers. Invite their reporters for events. Provide them press releases to use even if they cannot attend. Actively seek reporters/ writers of Indian language papers to write general articles included. Help them using various ways (as discussed earlier) so that they can write more effective and useful articles.
  • Appreciate the problems of translating and abbreviating study reports/ research-related and find ways to dispense more balanced information on such studies. Directly counter/ debunk wrong information when talking to reporters or addressing gatherings.

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In conclusion

This two-part blog entry provides the highlights of what I learned from my study; I have not commented on many other interesting aspects like article attractiveness, readability, and retention of content. I consider the data presented above sufficient as a starting point to act. Of course, all my work was based on articles available free online and anyone interested can gather and study such articles, and draw their own conclusions and suggestions.

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References

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Dementia Home Care in India: a framework to understand it, and suggestions for caregivers and volunteers

As an ex-caregiver who tries to help other caregivers, I continue to be dismayed by how unprepared and unsupported families are through years of exhausting and heart-breaking dementia caregiving. Many families never get a diagnosis. Even those who get a diagnosis rarely get a realistic picture of how much they need to plan, what changes they will have to make in their lives, and how absent systemic support systems are.

Again and again, I find families clueless about the deterioration dementia brings. They do not know that dementia will keep worsening and that the person will become almost fully dependent. They have not registered that they will be using more and more of their time and money and energy for care. They often think dementia as memory problems; they do not know the person’s abilities will keep reducing. This will go on for years, and during this they will see the person deteriorate in heart-breaking ways. They start this journey unprepared, with no one holding their hands.

Almost all dementia care in India happens at home. Advice given to caregivers assumes many things about what families can afford and the time they have for caregiving. Families do not get a realistic picture for effective planning. They remain unaware of many potential problems. Possibly the advisers themselves do not understand the overwhelming and prolonged nature of care. And advisers do not appreciate that 24×7 home care differs from a day job of a trained professional who is part of a multi-disciplinary team. So a lot of their well-meaning advice is impractical because, though good in itself, the advice does not fit the family’s care context.

The fact is, dementia awareness and support in India is so poor that family caregivers have to create their own group of supporters. They have to plan for dementia caregiving and also for self-care. They have to plan finances for a marathon stretch of increased costs and reduced incomes. They have to see how to take out the required time and energy for years of care. They have to prepare for the emotional journey of caring and their stress and fatigue. They have to appreciate the limitations of the systems and support around them, and have realistic expectations. And all such planning has to be done early, because they will not be able to do much planning once they are submerged in intense caregiving.

Home care for someone with dementia is not a simple short-duration activity. Care happens for several years, and in the context of the culture and society and the family’s other obligations and desires. Many long-term decisions are made. We need to view dementia home care as part of this framework in order to understand and plan it better. We have to appreciate the limitations and then seek practical answers.

I have been mulling over this for a while now, and recently I put together my thoughts on such a framework along with some suggestions for caregivers and volunteers. Alas, there are far too many problems, and very few solutions or suggestions. I am not sure how much my presentation will help viewers, but it will surely give them something to think about. Maybe it will prompt families to derive practical approaches for their care situations. Maybe volunteers will find better ways to support families. You can view the presentation below, or view the presentation directly at Slideshare if the player below does not load properly.

Also, some similar posts and pages, and some resources:

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Ideas to support dementia care in India

As a caregiver for many years, I have shared my personal experiences and related musings about dementia caregiving through over 200 blog posts (see them here). I now work actively in the dementia domain (my work and how I support). I have also created resources for volunteers in the dementia domain.

Persons who want to support dementia care in India need helpful and practical projects they can take up. These projects should match their inclination, time, energy, and skills. This post is about my effort to create a set of potential projects they can consider.

First, some background. Many persons feel they should do something for caregivers. Unfortunately, very few are able to convert their intention and enthusiasm into action. Often, when they realize how much needs to be done, they become unsure about what specific actions can help. They want to make a difference, but get discouraged or intimidated. They then get busy in other work, or use their energy for some other cause that seems easier to contribute to.

A lot needs to be done to support families coping with dementia in India. Some of these are major initiatives, such as at the policy and Governmental levels. But individuals, NGOs, professionals, and organizations can also do many things, even with limited time, energy, and funds.

Small, clear, well-thought actions can make a real difference to at least some families. Such actions are practical, and also give great satisfaction. On the other hand, volunteers can get discouraged if they aim too high because they cannot pin down how exactly to achieve that goal. They are not able to get visible results that match their high expectations of success. So they feel overwhelmed and helpless and eventually give up.

I am therefore collecting and documenting a set of do-able ideas suitable for varied types of potential contributors. I will make this document/ presentation available online. I hope this document will provide existing and prospective volunteers at least some ideas that appeal to them and that fit their energy, funds, availability, and personality.

The tentative format for each idea (suggestions are welcome) is:

  • Scope and brief description of the idea
  • The problem it solves
  • Who may find this idea suitable to implement
  • Background knowledge needed
  • Elements to plan for
  • Examples and references of similar projects implemented
  • Resources to contact (for data/ support/ networking/ potential associates)

Please note that I know that we need broad visions and missions and nation-level strategies and actions. We need to “spread awareness,” “support caregivers,” “ensure early detection of dementia,” and “make dementia a national priority” and so on. These visions and missions require major actions by well-networked, well-informed persons who have the required time, energy, funds, etc.

But for my current project, I am not looking at lofty intentions and large national or international scopes. I seek easy-to-pick-up ideas that can be done at a more modest and practical level. Ideas that persons reading this blog can think about doing.

The persons/ entities who may find these ideas useful are expected to be:

  • Persons who want to donate small or moderate amounts of money effectively but don’t want to get pulled into too much evaluation or work
  • Persons looking for areas where their organization can fund or participate in projects (such as, projects under “social responsibility”)
  • Small to medium sized NGOs interested in eldercare or dementia domain
  • Family caregivers who want others to not suffer (“my experience should not go waste”) but don’t have much time and are concerned about confidentiality of participation
  • Concerned persons with some spare time and energy, who want to use their existing skills (communication, technology, etc.)
  • Concerned persons who are interested in creative work (art, plays, etc.)
  • Students, artists, and others who want to complete a small, useful project in dementia and may want this to be part of their college work/ add to their resume

Some examples of the types of ideas (to show how I am keeping the scope of my ideas simple and practical):

  • Fund the translation of a dementia information brochure from one language to another, including funding the translation and the cost of experts validating that translation.
  • Fund a local hospital’s neurology/ psychiatry department so that they can host monthly support group meetings
  • Arrange an inter-generational sensitization trip, such as a trip of school kids to a local dementia centre
  • Share your caregiving experience through comments on sites where you can share without violating your privacy (maybe anonymously). Decide to do so once a week (or month, whatever suits you).

Basically, I am starting a project to collect and document dementia-related ideas that are useful, doable, and give a sense of completion and satisfaction. Ideas you can pick up one at a time, do and complete satisfactorily, and either stop or pick up one more idea.

What I am doing: I am using my notes as well as published reports and papers (national and international) to get a starting set of ideas. I am trying to recognize do-able components of available ideas, and then select what seems important, useful, and practical to do. I am gathering data on successful initiatives and prototypes to add to this idea list.

Here is what I need from you: data and ideas. These include:

  • Send me data that can help me in my research: published papers, studies, news/ accounts of initiatives that worked (or failed, and why), examples of prototypes of caregiver interventions, and so on
  • Send ideas you consider practical to do. I’m sure anyone concerned about dementia has many big and many small ideas; send me ideas that you think fit my request. If in doubt, send the idea anyway.
  • Send any other suggestions.

I hope you will help.

Think of something useful that can be done even with limited energy and resources, even with constraints. Consider specific ideas where you can imagine someone achieving an end result in a short time frame. Then add a comment below (you don’t have to give your name if you prefer anonymity). Even sharing such ideas as comments may help others who are looking for project ideas. Of course, you can also email comments to me (see my contact information here).

Please share this post with anyone you think may be interested.

Thank you for reading.

(For your reference, here are the links referred to above):

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Using Online Caregiver Forums: Some Observations and Thoughts

Caregivers need support groups but often find it difficult to get away from their responsibilities and attend an in-person group. Their available free time may be too small a slot, or may not match the time of a scheduled support meeting. The more overwhelmed and stressed the caregiver is, the less likely it is that this caregiver can reach an in-person group.

This situation is really sad because support groups reduce caregiver isolation and provide a safe forum to exchange stories, problems, and suggestions with each other. Attending even a few meetings can transform how caregivers perceive their situation; they start finding the challenges more bearable, the changed behavior is taken less personally, and they are able to use suggestions they get from others and even generate creative solutions themselves.

Given the practical problems related to attending in-person groups, we need to examine the use of online forums for caregiver sharing and support. I am using this blog post to share my observations and thoughts, and give my suggestions, based on a number of online support groups that I have been part of–some as an active participant, and some as a lurker.

There are many types of online caregiver forums. At one end of the range, there are large forums that have structure and moderation and are handled by a group of committed persons/ some volunteer organization, and continue for years. And then we have small, informal groups that some caregivers form to stay connected and support each other, with membership varying from five or six to around fifteen or so.

Let me first share my observations and thoughts about smaller, informal caregiver groups. If you have been part of such groups, I’d love to hear from you about your experiences and impressions…

In the last five years, I have seen many instances of caregivers creating their own online groups. Some groups emerged after caregivers met during some face-to-face support group meeting or caregiver training and decided to stay in touch online. Others emerged when caregivers happened to meet online and decided they needed to get together for mutual support, and therefore gathered a group by bringing in friends (and friends of friends) or using social media. These groups were relatively informal with no active moderation. While some members were volunteers or professionals were included, they were not present in the capacity of a moderator or administrator or even an expert, just present as members.

Firstly, the groups were typically very fast to set up. Some caregiver would tell another, let’s set up something to stay in touch, and then a few of them decided on a technological platform they all were comfortable with and plunged in right away. I’ve seen email groups and Facebook groups (but not bulletin boards) getting kicked off and working full steam within days of someone suggesting starting a group.

The initial momentum was heartening. Caregivers were clearly eager to get and give support and they openly shared their situations and problems, and were generous to each other while empathizing and sharing suggestions. Conversations were meaningful and it was clear that a rapport was building. Of course, the usefulness of the group depended on the members’ availability, involvement, knowledge, and degree of articulation, but definitely most members found the groups helpful.

However, the tempo faded after a while. Participation died down even though no one specifically unsubscribed. Some queries got no responses or just perfunctory responses. Queries stopped after a while. Some subsets formed when two or three caregivers began corresponding directly/ established phone contact, but the online forum was no longer active.

One typical characteristic of these small informal groups was the lack of detailed rules and active moderation. This initially added to the sense of friends getting together, an informal air, and worked in some groups, but not in others.

There were problems, too. Everyone was not happy with the group; some even got stressed by it.

Here’s one example. One caregiver (I’ll call her AAA) was handling an aggressive parent with dementia alone, day and night, and did not have an attendant to help. Siblings had moved away and would not call. None of the other caregivers were facing such a severe challenge; they had at least some family or helper support, and not all were actually handling the daily care tasks. When AAA would post her problems and others responded, she was very unhappy with the responses because she found the responses obviously impractical given her situation (take a break, get help from your sibling) or she felt dismissed because someone would tell her to lighten up (don’t take yourself so seriously, have a good laugh instead, you’ll find it funny when you look back at it later).

After a few such responses, AAA wrote directly to me to say that the group stressed her because she had expected at least fellow caregivers to understand her problems, but now she felt even more isolated. She felt the group was not a safe space for her to unburden herself or seek help. She stopped participating there, and she and I continued our interactions on a one-to-one basis using email and phone. It was ironic and unfortunate that a support group increased her isolation.

I think one problem is the way we respond to online interactions. An in-person support group meeting is an immersive experience; caregivers see facial expressions and hear the emotion in the voices when problems are shared. Even if someone’s situation seems very different from their own, the face-to-face interaction makes it easier to pay attention and feel empathy. Selecting an appropriate response is easier, and it is easier to see when to avoid humor or realize what could sound preachy or trite or judgmental. Suggestions and comments are therefore better worded, longer, and supplemented by gestures and facial expressions that reaffirm the spirit of support.

On the contrary, in an online forum, people may not read posts/ mails carefully, or may type a hasty reply without grasping some key facts from the original post, or may sound harsher than they intended to. Or, even if they write well enough, the person reading it may be oversensitive about some phrase or suggestion, and feel hurt.

My impression, based on my (limited) experience, is that small, informal online groups function better if the members have met each other or talked to each other before interacting through the forum, because even a few earlier interactions or in-person meetings make them more willing to share experiences and create trust. They are also less likely to take offense or interpret responses as put-me-downs.

The problem AAA faced is only partly because of the characteristics inherent in the online mode of interacting. There are other factors, too. We use the word “caregiver” as if all caregivers were the same, but there is a vast diversity in caregiver situations. A small, informal online group of diverse caregivers does not include enough members who can understand and support each other for every type of care situation.

Another thing that made me uncomfortable in some of these groups was when members posted specific suggestions and advice on medication and alternate treatments. These alternate approaches were projected as medically sound, but were recommendations that I knew were scientifically suspect. Data posted to counter the claims was seen as obstructing “helpful” advice. I felt that this was the sort of situation that would typically warrant intervention by a knowledgeable moderator, but the group was not structured for moderation.

None of the groups inducted new members except for a token few in the beginning. Meanwhile, existing caregivers “moved on.” Caregivers don’t need help from the group once the person stabilizes and they get the knack for handling the situation. Or if the person reaches a different state for which the existing support group is irrelevant. Or the person dies, and the caregiver has to resume a career or rebuild a life. My impression was that existing members were not keen on new members because that would be adding an unknown factor in a group that had some sort of rapport.

Let me now share some observations based on a much larger, structured group with formal rules and guidelines on what sort of posts and language are allowed, and with moderators overseeing group functioning. Members include several caregivers coping with diverse care situations.

As in the smaller groups, I saw the participation of individual caregivers change a lot over time. Some rarely posted; others posted actively for some time but then reduced participation or even stopped it; some were sporadic in participation. However, as the number of caregivers was very large, and as new caregivers kept joining, the interactions remained vibrant and helpful. No query remains unanswered. The moderators, too, actively participated and keep the flow of exchanges going.

No group can be free of misunderstanding, and I did see occasional posts that seemed judgmental or harsh but usually some other member or moderator responded almost immediately to express enough empathy with the original poster and related query, thus diffusing any possibility of hurt. Inconsiderate comments were not tolerated. Spam messages or misleading promotion of dubious cures were similarly handled by moderators and other group members.

As I write mainly out of concern for caregivers in India, I must note one problem: the membership in the larger caregiver forums is usually from outside India, and many of the queries and comments assume a very different culture and very different types of system and support. Discussions on end-of-life care, legal and financial issues, use of services, availability and regulation of helpers, all are based on a very different set up. That means many suggestions can be used only partially.

So what can I suggest caregivers in India who are looking for online support?

Firstly, online support groups as such are definitely worth considering. Online groups provide 24×7 availability of a forum to post. The sense of community helps. You may get empathetic responses and feel less isolated, and you may get some useful responses.

If you already know some other caregivers with whom you share some trust/ rapport, getting together and creating an informal online group is worth considering. Of course, expectations need to be limited, and such groups may not suit caregivers whose situation is very unusual and different from that of all the existing members. And members need to understand that such groups cannot be depended on for medical advice.

Also, please do look at existing dementia forums/ caregiver forums run by volunteers/ organizations/ groups of concerned persons. They will reduce your sense of isolation and give you some idea of the problems and solutions others use. Even when the exchanges in such forums don’t always suit your context, they could contain useful pointers. Also, look for online support groups set up for special situations, such as for specific types of dementia (Lewy Body, FTD).

A good approach is to join multiple groups, and understand which type of need each of them can meet. Use these groups depending on the fit, participating according to where you feel comfortable sharing your problems and also sharing your suggestions for the problems others face.

Here are a few things to keep in mind before participating in an online group.

Groups have different degrees of privacy, and even if a group is supposed to be private and if posts are kept private and confidential as per the technical platform used, ultimately the actual implementation depends on the other members, too. If you are posting something very personal, and are very particular that no one should be able to link your posts to you, consider groups where you can use a pseudonym and do not share details that could identify you.

Some groups (such as groups on Facebook) may be confidential, but you need to enroll with your real name. Members can click through your name from a post you made in the group and see your public profile. Keep that in mind if that seems to be a problem to you.

Also, in very large groups, keep in mind that your family members and friends (or their friends) may also join. Keep that in mind when posting details or rants.

Well, those are my thoughts and observations related to caregivers considering online support groups, and I would love to hear from you about what your own experiences have been on the effectiveness and usefulness of such groups, or your suggestions to caregivers on this.

If you are a concerned person trying to help persons living with dementia, you may be considering setting up an in-person group or an online group. I have created two draft documents that put together my thoughts on what setting up and running online groups and in-person groups involve. Both these documents are available online and also for download, and you can refer to them. I would appreciate any comments you have, so that I can refine the drafts and release improved versions. The page where you can view the documents or download them is here: Create dementia care support groups (includes download). The two individual documents are available for download at Setting up and maintaining an online caregiver forum to support dementia caregivers (PDF file) and In-person Dementia Support Group Meeting Guidance Document (PDF file).

I really would like to hear from you, either as comments below or as an email (check my contact page to know my email id).

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Working for the dementia care domain: what next? (Part 2 of a two-part blog entry)

I am currently trying to decide the focus of my future dementia-related work. I have limited energy and time available for dementia work, and so I need to make deliberate decisions on where to use them. Keeping my current online resources usable and relevant needs some ongoing effort (content updates, back-end maintenance etc.) and I also have to tackle queries I get, but where should I put my additional time and energy? Should I improve these existing online resources by adding similar content or enhancing existing content? Or should I work on something different?

(This is the second part of a two-part blog entry: The first part can be read here: Working for the dementia care domain: my journey over the past six years or so (Part 1 of a two-part blog entry))

Fact is, I have many vague, unformed ideas, and there is no way I can explore all of them (let alone implement them all). I would like to make choices where I may be effective. And what is effective? I’m not sure how to define or determine that…but I assume effective choices will be the ones that create useful artifacts and efficiently use my skills and suit my personality. So here is what I know about my way of working and thinking.

I am an introvert and am most productive when working at my desk, doing intense work. I am not a socializer by nature. While I meet people and participate in events sometimes and enjoy such meetings, they also drain me. My choices need to exploit my ability to do concentrated work alone, and cannot depend on my “networking” or creating organizations or services or working in large teams. I am unambitious and don’t do well under pressure or targets. I can’t stay sane and productive in a competitive environment.

I want to remain focused on creation of content about dementia and care, suitable for persons in India. I am talking of content that can be directly understood and applied given our culture and context in India, and content that uses Indian metaphors, examples, language, etc. My experiment of creating material and the viewership tells me that this is a worthwhile target, with special mention of material created in Hindi, which has had over 30,000 views. Unfortunately, I don’t know of others who are convinced enough about this to actually actively create such content (usually, they refer people to a few well-known links from different countries without reading the articles/ manuals they are recommending). All this makes me feel I have even more reason to work in this area I consider important.

I believe technology is under-exploited for spreading information and providing support. I’m not an expert in technology, but I’m not afraid of it either, and I don’t hesitate when it comes to learning more about possibilities or implementation. I have picked up whatever technology I have need for my work so far, and am not scared by the thought that I may need to explore more technology options for some ideas I have. The potential of technology excites me and fascinates me, and is definitely something I’d consider while looking at options.

Productivity and effectiveness are major criteria for me. While I am willing to write and create material, I am a slow writer, and so I need to be careful about which writing projects to pick up. It would be silly to start something that requires several months unless I am sure I can do it, and that it is a better project compared to my other options. Making effective choices was not a major criteria in earlier days when I had no experience about such work, and not many ideas. But now I have many vague ideas and need to carefully select which to pursue.

I need to either locate a peer group or find some other way to brainstorm and evaluate ideas. So many things need to be done in the dementia domain that I cannot pick a random flavor-of-the-month are of work every month. Choices matter. Idea generation is not enough; I need good ways to perform idea evaluation and selection.

Over these past years, I’ve been in touch with many volunteers and wannabe volunteers who seem interested in dementia or caregivers or both. Usually, though, dementia is not their prime area and their approach is typically based on extroverted, networking-based solutions. They focus more on areas like “active ageing” and may even dilute or remove their overwhelmed-dementia caregiver focus over time. Some work in so many areas that I’m not even clear what their focus is. Understanding, measuring, or improving effectiveness is often not a concern. This means I do not have enough in common with them to discuss/ exchange ideas for my kind of involvement, as I focus only on dementia care.

Ideally, I’d like a reasonably-sized peer group of like-minded persons to remain motivated for my work and to discuss my ideas, joys and frustrations, but I have not yet found this group. I do have some friends with similar values, but they are scattered, not working in my focus area, and busy with their own initiatives and ideas. I can no longer assume I will manage to find an active peer group, and this lack affects my ability to process my ideas and act on them. It affects my pacing. I have no idea how to fulfill this gap.

I need enough time and energy for other (non-dementia) activities to get the emotional satisfaction I need When I first started blogging, I did that as catharsis, but as I increased my work and began actively helping others, I assumed I would get ongoing satisfaction and friendships. That’s not quite how things turned out. While I’ve had some interesting interactions and friendships with caregivers, our paths start diverging because I continue to work in dementia and others move on to their own areas of priority, leaving fewer areas of common interest. Interactions reduce over time. And while I am in touch with many concerned persons/ volunteers, again, most of them have very different interests and priorities and we don’t have enough depth of interaction for these to satisfy my need for intense friendships and emotional connection.

Dementia is not a cheerful area to work in. While some changes can improve the quality of life of the person with dementia and the family, there is an inherent downer in seeing someone fade out, stop responding, die. There is loss. There is grief. There is helplessness. Suggestions can make some difference, but the basic nature of the problem remains. People don’t contact me to share any good news; they contact when they are overwhelmed, stressed, unhappy. I find it frustrating to repeatedly see families face the same type of problem. I know how little the current support is, and how slow the rate of improvement in support systems and facilities is. While I feel some satisfaction when my suggestions and work are useful to others, this is overshadowed by my sense of helplessness and frustration. As this situation is unlikely to change, I need to spend time doing other (non-dementia) work or activities so make me feel connected and emotionally satisfied. I need to factor this in while seeing how much time I have available for dementia work.

Given my overall time/ energy availability, I have to choose whether to continue work to enhance my existing body of material, or whether to pick up some different type of content preparation. My impression right now (and this may change) is that my existing body of work can continue to help people so long as I do ongoing maintenance on it. It is reasonably complete as a unit of information for my target profile. (Some links to my existing body of work and recent viewership data are available here)Adding more material to it would be nice, but I believe I have reached the point of diminishing returns when it comes to investing time and effort in expanding my existing body of work. I am therefore interested in exploring whether I can work on a different, important area. However, I also need to remember that it takes me a lot of effort it to overcome self-doubt when venturing into any new area; any new venture/ project I consider should seem worth that emotional cost.

In my opinion, the most important aspect to address is dementia awareness, because awareness is pathetic in India, and awareness is the foundation on which everything else rests. I think we need ways to spread awareness about dementia amongst people who are not looking for information on dementia, and we need to reach out to multiple cross-sections of society. I am interested in seeing whether I can contribute to increasing dementia awareness. However, typical awareness campaigns include advertisements, walks, celebrity involvement, speeches, etc., and my personality does not match the skills needed for any of these. So my challenge is, can I contribute to spreading awareness given my personality and skill profile? Can I, as a self-funded solo worker, do something?

My current, tentative plan is letting myself freely think about potential areas of contribution rather than staying within some conventional framework. I’ve been using technology, specifically, the Internet, as a means for contributing for the last several years; developing material and making it available using the Internet also suits my personal work characteristics, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll find a way to extend this to work on some new area I consider important (such as dementia awareness). Maybe a few months down the line, I’ll have some idea on what to do.

And of course, if you have any suggestions that seem to fit my basic personality traits and my inclinations, please share them.

(This is the second part of a two-part blog entry: The first part can be read here: Working for the dementia care domain: my journey over the past six years or so (Part 1 of a two-part blog entry))

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Helping professionals appreciate the realities of dementia home care

I started sharing my experiences and thoughts on dementia and care online over six years ago. Even back then, I considered awareness to be the key component–that included informing the general public and persons handling services about dementia and related care. I didn’t realize then that even volunteers and professionals working in this domain, persons who were training caregivers and counseling them, needed to become more sensitive and informed about how tough it was to provide home care for someone with dementia.

I’d heard the advice that volunteers and professionals gave caregivers, of course. They taught relevant skills like communication, but the advice also included material I considered simplistic and impractical. Nor did they pay emphasis on how tough the caregiver adjustment would be, how mistakes were inevitable, how emotional the journey was.

Then, around three-and-a-half years ago, I heard a volunteer criticize caregiving families while addressing a group of would-be volunteers. This volunteer stated that families were “cruel” and “selfish” and blamed them because they did not take patients to doctors as often as the volunteer considered appropriate. Moreover, this person criticized caregivers for not spending enough time with the patients and not being creative enough, and compared this time and care to what professionals provided in institutional settings (the very, very few such facilities that exist).

I was stunned to realize the extent of this volunteer’s ignorance/ disconnect with home caregiving realities.

To me, the difference between the two settings–institutional and home–had always been obvious. In an institution, workers have opted for this career. They are trained, have the benefit of multiple specialists, and operate in a well-designed facility. They work for limited hours and have no concurrent roles and responsibilities while at work. They have no emotional past with the patient and are not traumatized because the deterioration is happening in someone they have know for years. And so on. Even a bit of thought would throw up a range of aspects in which the institutional care situation differs from home care. I could understand lay persons not appreciating this difference in situations, but I expected volunteers working in the dementia care domain to have a more realistic view. How could such a person be ignorant of the home care situation, and so judgmental?

Clearly, even trainers and volunteers in this domain needed to be informed about dementia home care realities.

I began putting together a note on the context of dementia home care in India. It took some pruning and prioritizing to and redrafting to create a short, compact version. I uploaded this note on slideshare.net at Dementia Home Care: Context and Challenges in India.

Initially I saw the note as something that volunteers and professionals may find useful to help home caregivers through relevant and practical advice. But later I realized that the note can also help caregivers. It could be used to get an idea of their role and how tough it may be. It could also help them understand what advisers may be assuming and know what they need to clarify/ explain in order to get pertinent advice.

The note, available on slideshare at Dementia Home Care: Context and Challenges in India, can also be viewed in the reader below.

I have continued to try and explain the realities of home caregiving to volunteers and professionals. This includes one-on-one discussions with volunteers when I hear them say something insensitive. If they seem open to listening, I share data and anecdotes on home caregiving challenges they may have missed. Sometimes I get a chance to present the family caregiver perspective to professionals in forums. Below, for example, is a recent presentation I made on caregiver issues and challenges.

The presentation, available on slideshare at Caregivers: Issues and Challenges Faced, can also be viewed in the reader below.

Much still needs to be done to improve the professionals’ understanding of home care realities. I continue to hear comments that confirm that even professionals who make presentations on caregiver stress have limited understanding of the range of issues and challenges and this results in their getting critical and judgmental, even blaming caregivers if the care is not happening in ways they feel is appropriate.

I think this incomplete understanding of home care realities is partly because caregivers are unable to share their situations with honesty and in sufficient detail. Multiple reasons exist for this reticence, and not enough is happening to facilitate bridging the disconnection between families and professionals.

One such incident happened a few months ago, when a professional who was talking about some caregiver query burst out in an obviously frustrated tone: “I don’t understand why caregivers get tired doing the work. Can’t they do the work without getting so emotional and involved? And why do they complain? They all chose to be caregivers, didn’t they? You chose to be a caregiver. You needn’t have been a caregiver if you didn’t want to.”

The person who said this is very active in this domain and meets patients and families regularly. Now me, I’m not a caregiver any more; my mother is dead. Even when she was alive, I had stopped needing support and empathy from professionals many years ago because I created my own emotional toolbox to cope. My first reaction at this outburst was extreme discomfort. I want to get away from this conversation. Then I paused because I realized that this person would be continuing to meet patients and families and would continue to advise them with this poor understanding of caregiver challenges.

I spent the next hour or so explaining things to this person using facts, concepts, anecdotes. Things such as how home care needed far more emotional adjustment and strength than institutional care such as what this professional gave. As for caregiving being a choice, I asked, “You say choice. What option do you think I had if I did not want to care for my mother? A choice means you think there are options. List the options for me.” Interestingly, this person kept repeating the “caregiving is a choice” like a mantra a number of times before realizing that there was no option, hence no choice.

The conversation caught me unawares. I had expected this profile of persons to not need any explanation. Fortunately the professional was a good listener and ended the conversation thanking me, saying, “I think I am beginning to see what you mean; no one ever talked to me about these type of problems before.” Clearly the professional had heard families express overwhelm but had not heard explanations of why they were overwhelmed.

To me, this confirms the Catch 22 nature of the problem.

Yes, most volunteers and professionals don’t appreciate home care realities. But not understanding persons of a different profile is a common problem. The fact is, most of the times, we don’t invest time and energy to truly understand the life situation of others. Also, we don’t find it easy to appreciate problems that others face–we remain caught up in our own world views and problems. And yes, caregivers obviously want to be understood and respected, but they are also unable to explain their situations, either out of reluctance and privacy, or because they don’t trust the audience, or because they don’t have enough time for sharing their situation.

Essentially, if volunteers and professionals do not understand and appreciate the home care realities, and if this stops caregivers from explaining their situation and problems, we have a logjam. Maybe if just a few families opened up, changes would begin.

I’m not sure whether to be hopeful or despondent as such; I swing between the two. Well, I’m doing what I can…

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Dementia and caregiving: More material in Hindi

Six years ago, I started sharing my caregiving experiences online as a form of catharsis, but this soon morphed into taking active steps to spread awareness about dementia and sharing suggestions/ information that could help dementia caregivers in India. The main reason I pushed myself to do what I could was the sheer paucity of material that Indian caregivers could relate to–material written assuming an Indian context.

Lack of material in Hindi was one of my concern areas. I tried involving others into creation of Hindi material, but no one stepped up to actually doing work (Alas, material doesn’t get created by clicking “like” on Facebook). I tried using paid translation services, but their translation was too literal and full of grammar and spelling mistakes and misleading phrases. So I began preparing material in Hindi myself–I created a full-fledged Hindi website on dementia and care, added a couple of Hindi videos to my youtube channel, and uploaded some Hindi stuff on my slideshare.net.

In the last few months, I put in another burst of work to prepare more material in Hindi. Here’s what I created:

A Hindi blog on dementia and care: While I’d initiated a Hindi blog a while ago, I had not been making posts in it. In May this year, I began posting more often on this blog, beginning with a topic I considered very important: Dementia names in Hindi डिमेंशिया को हिंदी में क्या कहते हैं. The blog now has 16 published posts, and I’m comfortable enough to now announce it here.

The blog is at डिमेंशिया (मनोभ्रंश) और सम्बंधित देखभाल.

A short, simple Hindi note on caregiving: This was the Hindi version of a simple caregiving note I’d written earlier. The Hindi note is uploaded on slideshare.net. You can view it at slideshare or in the player below.

Two Hindi videos on my personal experiences as a caregiver: One activity lying on my to-do list for a while was sharing my personal caregiving experiences in Hindi. I’d already created such videos in English. Talking about my personal caregiving experience is always difficult, and it took me a lot of rallying around to finally do the recording in Hindi. It was tough and draining. I finally selected out two segments of what I taped and uploaded it on my personal youtube channel at swapnawrites. (This is different from my other youtube channel, dementiacarenotes which contains videos with suggestions/ tips/ information for other caregivers, and is associated with my websites Dementia Care Notes/ Dementia Hindi).

Here’s the Hindi video where I share my mother’s dementia journey

(if the player does not load, visit this youtube link directly)

Here’s the Hindi video where I share my personal experiences and observations as a dementia caregiver

(if the player does not load, visit this youtube link directly)

So that’s what I’ve been doing to add my bit to Hindi material on dementia and caregiving. I am not fluent enough in other Indian languages to prepare material in them, and I hope others, fluent in various Indian languages, will consider sharing information and suggestions in them. I consider it a pity that most material in other Indian languages is material that was written for and by persons in countries other than India, because that material assumes a cultural context and level of support very different from what we face here, and hence not always practical for us here.

A request: If you are concerned about reaching audiences that read/ understand Hindi, please do check out the above. If you think they can be useful to others, please consider telling people about them, linking to them from your websites and blogs, and sharing them on social media. Thanks!

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For those concerned about dementia and caregiving in India

The poor state of dementia awareness and caregiver support in India continues to alarm me, but I also fear that many persons who can improve things are not doing so because they think that the required actions will be taken by others at some grand, country-wide level, often by the government or major NGOs.

I think that is wishful thinking and not dependable.

Choosing to make one area a national priority means choosing to pay less importance to some other area. Realistically speaking, not everything can be a priority. In a country like India, struggling with multiple basic problems in areas like health, education, law and order, infrastructure, etcetera, I have no basis to expect that dementia will be made a “national priority”. Surely child mortality, primary health care, basic sanitation, farmer support, poverty eradication, reducing school drop outs, and many, many basic causes are already contending for, and deserve more national attention, funds, and priority.

I keep encountering persons who expect the government to solve the problems faced by dementia caregivers. They expect the government to ensure hospital care and better diagnosis, set up multiple respite cares and day cares and memory clinics, have special wards in hospitals, etc. Alas, it’s not going to happen in a hurry. Dementia activists may talk themselves hoarse labelling dementia as an “epidemic” but I’m sure activists in other domains–domains like AIDS, cancer, diabetes, heart problems, child prostitution, malnutrition, and so many others–have their own catchy phrases which are as alarming or more. They, too, have compelling and visible statistics to support the use of such phrases–and often have more persuasive pictures, case studies, and statistics than what dementia experts can churn out.

In my opinion, it may be reasonable to expect and lobby for some basics that facilitate dementia diagnosis and care, like including dementia-related criteria in guidelines/ checklists for senior citizen related services/ homes, including dementia in curriculums of professions like medicine, nursing, adding dementia in illnesses for which concessions are available, subsidizing adult diapers.

But it seems unrealistic to expect the government to set up special, well-equipped day care and respite care centres for dementia when girl students are dropping out of school because schools have no basic safety or even toilets. And someone even suggested to me that the Government should set up “dementia villages” of the sort shown in these articles: Inside an Amazing Village and Wikipedia entry on Hogewey. Well, I can’t even begin to explain how unrealistic and unfair that expectation is…

So to me, this means that for anything beyond broad directives/ policies related to dementia, we have to depend on NGOs and on what we, as individuals and corporates can do. And we need to acknowledge that the number of persons willing to do work is very low, and therefore being effective and focused in our efforts becomes very important. My contention remains that the root to improvement is awareness. Ideally, I’d have liked some large, funded and committed organization to work on a well-designed awareness campaign, but I don’t want to succumb to the temptation of abdicating responsibility and waiting for the “they” to do this. Let’s all do our bit anyway. Maybe things will pick up.

Another thing that worries me is the danger of expending effort in areas that are not yet relevant in India.

The problem is that some of us, even those who know ground realities, get very attracted by discussions in esoteric circles of dementia activists from developed countries. We forget how much foundational work needs to be done in India before we can afford lofty dreams. We forget that, in India, we have yet to establish a foundational understanding of dementia, and our overall quality of life and social support and welfare schemes is not good. How can we justify aiming for a quality of life of dementia-affected families that is grander than what is normally found around us?

Sure, concepts like “dementia villages” and “dementia-friendly communities” are progressive, the “in” thing, and provide a more satisfying area of work compared to mundane problems like drafting caregiver material and making it available in multiple Indian languages. But can already-scarce experts afford to spend time and effort on serious and detailed discussions on such advanced topics when we have not yet discussed how to ensure that doctors know how to diagnose dementia?

Persons discussing futuristic and currently-inapplicable-in-India concepts often point out that the discussions will also result in more awareness and after some initial discussions, they will adapt the concepts for India and their work will include awareness type of basic areas. My concern is that most initiatives lose steam and run out of funds very soon. We therefore cannot squander initial momentum on discussions that will not result in improvements to those suffering from the pathetic state of affairs.

From what I have seen, this digression into currently-irrelevant concepts is a consequence of three factors:

  • Volunteers/ experts are often part of a vibrant world-wide community that discusses advanced applications and ideal situations with impressive and inspiring quality-of-life criteria, and hence these volunteers/ experts get drawn into professionally enriching dialogs and heart-warming concepts
  • They don’t pause to think that taking up one project of this sort also means not being able to take up some other project they could have done instead, and
  • They do not have sufficient, day-to-day contact with actual caregivers and patients and therefore are not personally inconvenienced by the ground-realities. They don’t, at an inner, emotional level, appreciate the day-to-day struggles of families coping with dementia. This distance means they do not experience an urgency to tackle the most pressing and immediately relevant aspects first.

Awareness is so poor that there is no way to tap the bulk of actual, hands-on caregivers. Besides, caregivers come in various stripes; the ones who most need help are not visible, not tapped, not participating in most dialogues. Patients who need the most help are the ones locked up in houses because of social stigma, or who remain undiagnosed or are labelled as crazy and shunned. So where are their voices, their concerns, their perspectives on what they need most and fastest? Where can we find persons diagnosed early enough to have insight into their dementia who may share their realities so that we can know what “friendliness” means to someone who actually has dementia? Don’t their opinions matter?

Yet I am not sure that locating persons with dementia and their hands-on family caregivers, and then listening to them, is considered as something to do before deciding what needs to be done first. I’m not even sure it gets due importance while actually working on grander projects.

Here’s what I feel: we need to get real about the situation in India if we want changes to benefit persons who need help.

We need to accept what we can expect from the government. We also need to accept that many things are pointless and unfair to expect. We need to honestly acknowledge the real status of families touched by dementia, across all economic and social status, across all geographical locations–not just upper middle class English-speaking families living in larger cities in some states.

Furthermore, we need to set aside expectations driven by international conventions and not let our priorities get warped.

Let me get this right: I am not saying there is anything intrinsically wrong about working on advanced concepts. I am saying, when resources are so scarce, then anything we pick up has an opportunity cost: something else that those resources (experts, time, corporate funds and goodwill) could have been used for remains undone. That is why we have to be careful in what we choose. If we had more volunteers, more experts and abundant resources we could have taken on projects of all sorts–both for providing basic dementia support, and for discussing advanced concepts that are not currently usable. But we have a severe shortage of people and resources in the dementia domain. We don’t have the foundation for advanced and ambitious projects like a “dementia-friendly community.”

Let’s at least reach a state when, if a family approaches a doctor, odds are that they get appropriate guidance. Or when a patient is taken to an emergency room, staff understands how unnerving this all must be to someone with dementia and knows how to be considerate. Let’s make information available in Indian languages. The list of such basics is a long one.

There’s another aspect: each contribution can help.

With so much that needs to be done, surely each concerned person can find some way to contribute? Especially as we know that there is no “they” who will wave a magic wand. Even as individuals, we can help others and add to the overall betterment of the dementia care environment. For example, we can help a caregiver by running some errands or providing a respite. We can talk more openly about dementia and improve awareness, making dementia and its care challenges visible. We can generally be more proactive and participative when sharing information and ideas. And maybe some of us have the time and energy to take up larger projects, work more visibly, share thoughts and ideas and aim for making a bigger difference.

So if you are concerned about dementia and caregiving in India, please think of what you can do for people whose lives have been, or may be touched by dementia. They will have a smoother ride because of your actions. And it’s not as if you are safe from dementia in the future; your life may be touched by it again. Actions you take today based on your concern could even help you in the future.

Related post: I had shared my thoughts on the importance of dementia awareness earlier, here: Need for well-designed dementia awareness campaigns

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Caring for someone with dementia

In November last year, a friend asked me to write a 700 word article on dementia caregiving for a souvenir. Though I’ve written extensively about dementia and related caregiving, the imposed word-limit forced me to weigh each sentence, each word. What should I include? What to exclude? While I didn’t manage to say all I wanted, I realized that a one-pager overview of a vast topic can be a relief after the rambling posts I typically make on this blog. So here’s the article, unchanged (I confess that I was sorely tempted to expand it, but I desisted 🙂 ). Note that the article was written assuming very poor dementia awareness, as the intended readers were based in India.


Caring for someone with dementia

by Swapna Kishore

Family members, friends, and colleagues often want to support persons with dementia, but are unsure how to proceed. Below is a brief overview of dementia caregiving.

The first step is to understand the difficulties dementia patients face.

Most people don’t appreciate how much dementia affects the patient because they think it is normal for elders to have reduced brain functionality and memory loss. They think dementia problems are similar to the way most elders misplace keys or get slower at calculations.

The fact is, because of the cognitive decline in dementia, patients find it difficult to do even normal, simple activities. Amma skips lunch because she doesn’t remember how to heat the meal her daughter left for her. Grandfather gets cheated of his lifetime savings because he no longer understands financial transactions. Papa gets lost because he can’t remember where he lives. Grandmother has no idea how to open the bathroom tap. But family members assume such behaviour is laziness or carelessness because they don’t realise these problems are caused by dementia. When Amma withdraws, they say she is ‘giving up’ and any frustration or agitation is considered meanness.

However, once people understand how dementia affects the patient, they can find ways to help the patients.

Realistic expectations are essential for effective caregiving.

Families often hope treatment will make patients recover completely from dementia, and do not understand the limitations of medicines. They also think that if patients try harder, they will become normal.

Such unrealistic expectations create problems.

For example, family members insist that patients should remember things correctly and work faster. They ‘correct’ mistakes, criticise, get angry, or show disappointment. This confuses and distresses patients who are facing genuine problems and already trying their best. They become slower or may get agitated, which, in turn, upsets family members even more. This unhappy circle ends only when families accept the dementia reality and adjust their care approach based on realistic expectations.

Caregivers can look for ways to improve patient safety and fulfilment.

Once caregivers appreciate the realities of dementia, they are able to find suitable caregiving approaches.

Consider problems of communicating with the patient. Dementia patients may forget where they are and not even recognise family members. They get distracted easily. If caregivers understand these problems, they’ll know that typical communication tips can help: face the patient while talking, use eye-to-eye contact, use simple words and short sentences, speak clearly and calmly, and avoid complicated questions. If names confuse patients, point out objects. These and other suggestions can vastly improve communication.

Or consider ways to change the home. Signs pointing to the bathroom can help confused patients. Patients may feel safer walking around if clutter and hanging wires are removed. Grab bars may help. Suitable home adaptations make it easier for patients to do their tasks.

Better dementia understanding can also explain sudden changes, like the patient becoming inactive one day. If caregivers know that patients often can’t explain when they are unwell, they may notice the patient’s fever or sprained ankle.

Basically, patient behaviour provides clues that can be used to find solutions.

For dementia patients, every day is full of difficult tasks, and a predictable daily routine reduces stress. But like everyone, they like fun and want to feel useful. Caregivers who add suitable games and simple chores to the patient’s daily routine often find that patients are more cheerful and willing to do things.

Care has to be person-centric

Though there are similarities across patients, dementia affects individuals differently in terms of type and severity of damage in the brain, and how this worsens over time. Care must be adjusted according to the patient’s changing abilities, personality, past history, health, likes and dislikes, skills, interests, family, social environment, etc.

Dementia care involves heavy responsibility and hard work. Also, it is heart-breaking to see someone decline. Caregivers get exhausted, make mistakes, and may feel guilty, resentful, or depressed. Yet they do experience joy, especially when focusing on what patients can still do. Those fulfilling moments give caregivers the energy to do the work and accept the inevitable decline.


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A personal update: two years after my mother’s death

It is two years since my mother’s death; I guess it is time for a personal update.

When, for years, I was immersed in caregiving, I’d not considered what would happen after my mother’s death–on how I would feel, and how I would adjust to the loss and my changed role and situation. I hadn’t expected the process to be so slow and fraught with confusion. Over these last two years, I have gone through various phases of emotional upheaval and readjustment. The process of adjustment continues.

Two years later, my mother is still a presence in my mind every day. Even if I am not actively thinking of her, I have a faint, dull awareness of her, a sort of feeling something’s missing in my life, a feeling that has taken me time to get used to, but which I accept.

I end up thinking more specifically about her quite often, too. I remember things she did for me, or arguments we had, or things we shared, and it has an air of reminiscence, gentle, sometimes amusing or heart-warming, sometimes mildly sad. These memories are reasonably matter-of-fact, and while not always easy, they seem a part of my past and my personality like many other things.

But sometimes I get yanked into memories that plunge me into a sharp sense of loss. It’s like a sore spot touched suddenly, a spot a splinter lies buried under, unknown to me. The emotion leaves me gasping, exhausted. It takes an effort to emerge from, spanning for several minutes, even hours, and often, though I know the feeling will subside, I still have to ride the wave and cannot rush the pace at which it subsides. These emotional plunges, though declining in intensity and duration, occur often enough for me to dread them.

I am aware now of the sort of events that trigger these disorienting episodes.

Meeting my mother’s peer group, for example, still reminds me of my loss and of the loss she suffered because of her dementia. Sure, life deals out different fates to different people, everyone has problems and setbacks, and even if she hadn’t got dementia, other problems would have happened. Yet I need several deep breaths to compose myself again.

The major trigger for such plunges is related to my continued work for dementia caregivers.

A significant part of my work involves maintaining my online resources for dementia caregivers in India (I have websites/ videos at Dementia Care Notes , Dementia Hindi, youtube videos on dementia and caregiving, and caregiving-related personal interviews). For this work, I keep myself up-to-date with recent discussions and studies on dementia care and also stay on the lookout for India-specific services and facilities. Many caregivers and other concerned persons contact me through my sites or this blog, and I try to share my experiences and ideas with them. During all this work, I am actively thinking of dementia and how it impacts the person and families, and naturally, this is emotionally and mentally tied with my experiences as both caregiver and volunteer.

For most part, while doing such volunteer work, I have sufficient insight and distance to productively use what I have experienced and studied. But sometimes a sentence/ factoid I read or an incident someone relates connects me a hurtful memory or emotion inside me and disturbs me with an unexpected intensity. Some days ago, I was talking to another caregiver alumnus who tries to help other caregivers and spread awareness by sharing personal caregiving anecdotes, and she told me that she experiences similar plunges and pain.

Here’s the thing: caregiver conversations are needed. It is only by openly talking about such things that we can spread awareness and improve the situation for persons with dementia and their carers. For the large part, at least in India, dementia is untalked about and invisible, and caregiver stories remain unspoken and unheard. Dementia awareness remains poor, misinformation remains rampant, and support systems remain non-existent. The number of people who need help is growing faster than sporadic attempts to add support services. This overall status saddens me on some days, and frustrates and angers me on others. It makes me want to withdraw on some days, while on other days, it energizes me to do what I can. I know that sharing my caregiving experiences can be helpful to others — my mother’s death does not mean that my caregiver experiences have become irrelevant — and I wish I were not hampered by hurtful memories.

I continue to search for the optimal level of involvement in dementia care, hoping to find a level where I am effective and productive, and also safe from burnout or depression. It would definitely be easier to do what I want to do if my mother’s memories were by-and-large peaceful, benignly swinging between my experiencing a gentle nostalgia and sensing her supportive and affectionate presence. It seems, though, that time heals rather slowly, and part of the delay is because I continue work in this domain (thus extending and reinforcing my identification with a caregiver identity and related experiences and memories).

When I was a caregiver, my work was determined by factors beyond my control and I knew an end would come. But in volunteer work, I have to set the pace and take the decisions.

Regarding other fronts: I continue to extend myself, experiment, and redefine my understanding of what I want to do with respect to non-dementia-related areas. This adds to some variety and enrichment (and fatigue 🙂 ) I have already realized that travel and sightseeing are pleasurable to me only in small doses. For most part, I prefer simple long walks or curling up with my Kindle. I have resumed professional writing but not yet attempted any ambitious creative writing that requires a larger mental canvas; this will have to wait till I become better at juggling time.

I’ve shared on this blog that I find it difficult to resume a social life, given that I am, anyway, an introvert. In the past few months, I’ve attempted some degree of socializing. I’ve peeped out of my shell and started saying hello, and risking mistakes on this front.

I could say I’m progressing one smile at a time 🙂

And I have been learning some new topics.

I’ve always been a curious person. For the last several months, I’ve been enrolling in free online courses (MOOCs) on a diverse range of topics. I felt like this kid let loose in a candy store, and I sort of overdid it, completing around 20 courses in nine months, and peeking in and attending parts of many more. I enjoyed the concentration and rigor some of the courses required, but yeah, the courses do require time and energy and I am whittling down the courses to a less obsessed level.

So yes, this is where I am two years down the line after my mother passed on: taking moderate steps of venturing out into the unknown, trying to find a sane place between integrating and drawing upon memories of my mother while not getting sucked into them. Looking for peace. Looking for balance. Still figuring out how to pace my dementia care support work so that I can sustain it without draining myself. I suspect this is not too different in essence from folks around me, because everyone has to do some such balancing act, for whatever situations and challenges life throws to them.

And BTW, I have not been posting as regularly to this blog as I used to earlier; this blog already has over 200 entries, and while I have many ideas for new blog entries, actual writing may be sporadic as I balance other work/ commitments, including ongoing dementia care work. You can always contact me if you want.

My online dementia resources (in addition to this blog)

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Dementia caregivers: some thoughts

Some months ago, I found myself wondering about how the term dementia caregivers is often used for the entire range of experiences and needs of caregivers trying to support persons with dementia. We have caregiver manuals, caregiver trainings, and many other resources aimed at this entity: dementia caregiver. But are all persons helping dementia patients called dementia caregivers? Are their situations and needs similar enough for the same caregiver training to benefit them all? What are the pros and cons of this label?

I’ve met a range of persons who consider themselves dementia caregivers. Some are busy with caregiving chores 36 hours a day. Some are more like supervisors for a team of hired attendants and support staff, managing the care and handling the responsibility, but not doing much of the hands-on work. Some are family members of the patient, living in the same house but not participating in the care unless there is a crisis (care is handled by a primary caregiver, and these persons are secondary caregivers). Some are long-distance caregivers living in a different city, but they make daily phone calls to talk to the person with dementia or the live-in sibling caregivers. There are male caregivers and female caregivers, caregivers who are teenagers, middle-aged, or elderly. And so on. The range of type of care and responsibility across “dementia caregivers” is wide. I’ve even met persons whose relative is living in a respite care, and they make weekly or fortnightly trips to meet them for a few hours, and they, too, consider themselves caregivers.

On the other hand, I’ve also met persons who are supporting someone with dementia for some hours a day or even full-time, but dislike the word “caregiver.” They see themselves as “family” and find the caregiver label insulting.

I’m sure there are formal definitions of the word caregiver, though perhaps not as formal or easy to apply as the word “engineer” or “doctor” or as relationships like “son” or “sister”. But persons who consider themselves caregivers don’t know or apply these formal definitions. Typically, they are close to someone with dementia, and they feel their actions and decisions affect this person, and so they consider themselves caregivers.

How important, then, is it for persons involved in the care of a person with dementia to consider themselves “caregivers”? Does it matter at all?

The way I see it, persons involved in the care of someone with dementia can handle this role and responsibility better if they have:

  • A good understanding of dementia and the way it impacts the person
  • Knowledge of various caregiving tools and techniques, such as ways to communicate, to help the person, to handle challenging behaviour, to make home empowering and safe for the person, and so on
  • A supportive environment with sufficient dementia awareness and also enough facilities and services

Regardless of whether a person supporting a dementia patient identifies with the “caregiver” label, this person can handle caregiving more easily and effectively with the help of the three things listed above. Using the “caregiver” label helps because it may help us seek knowledge and skills and services designed for caregivers. It gives an identity and enables approached others in similar situations and getting company and support. When persons providing care think of themselves as supportive family members, they may reject any tools or advice carrying the “caregiver” label and not see them as beneficial. For example, they may assume that all they need to help the patient is love and consideration, and ignore the benefit of communication techniques and tips to assist in daily activities. They may not appreciate that communicating with someone who has dementia may be different (compared to how we communicate with cognitively alert elders). They may not avail the pool of knowledge and tips that other caregivers have gathered.

One problem in my opinion is that most caregiver material is prepared for some generic caregiver, and usually does not discuss how to selectively use the material given the profile/ situation of the caregiver. For example, the needs of a youth caregiver looking after an elder with dementia would be different from that of an elderly spouse of a person with dementia. Caregivers have to sift through a caregiver manual to see what is applicable for them, and they may dismiss all advice because the first few pages they read look totally irrelevant. Also, volunteers who are supporting caregivers have to tune their advice rather than just assume the general advice will fit everyone.

Caregiver advice is definitely not a “one size fits all” and material designed for caregivers cannot be directly applicable for all caregiving situations.

In November 2013, I had the opportunity to speak at the 18th National Conference of the Alzheimer’s and Related Society of India (ARDSI), held in Guwahati (Assam) in November, 2013. The topic was “Who are we: Introducing the caregivers”, and I discussed some of the aspects I mention above. I’ve uploaded my presentation to slideshare.net and included it below. (You can also view it directly on slideshare.net at this link)

I’d like to add that caregiver material must also be tuned to the culture and country. This topic is so big that it deserves its own blog post. We know that care environments and challenges would be very different in a village in Madhya Pradesh compared to, say, a suburb of London. We need material that is easy to adjust and apply in our settings. We need material that understands our way of life, and our culture and society. Examples and case studies should be relevant for us. We need material in our Indian languages, and often this is not just a matter of translation, but of rewriting. But as I said, this is a topic by itself…and one I have written about before and will probably write about again.

Meanwhile, do feel free to share your comments below (remember, you can share your thoughts anonymously if you prefer)

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Dementia: the journey of caring continues

September 2013, the month earmarked as World Alzheimer’s Month with the theme, “A Journey of Caring” has come to a close, but as caregivers know, the journey of caring continues at its 36-hours-a-day pace, day after day, month after month, year after year. As media moves over to other causes, and weary volunteers rest their hoarse throats and tired legs, let’s pause to think how deep and lasting the impact of those awareness drives and calls for supportive policies will prove to be.

Focused efforts to bring dementia and care into the limelight help, of course. Reports like the World Alzheimer’s Report 2013 may nudge some policy makers to pay more importance to dementia. Awareness talks have been held, and maybe some person will get diagnosed earlier because of them, or some relatives and friends will feel more deeply for the persons with dementia and their caregivers and extend support. Newspaper reports include lists of symptoms and names of doctors and organizations, and maybe some persons will now know whom to approach.

How long, though, does the impact of such campaigns last in the public mind? Every day is some sort of World Day, every month is some sort of World Month. Will alertness and awareness continue without sustained effort and momentum?

See, here’s the thing: if we want a paradigm shift in the status of dementia and caregiving in India, more people must understand how dementia impacts the person and the family. This understanding forms the base for any support work. Given that most people are not in cities where walks and talks were held, and that even if they were, they did not attend, all they have is a couple of paragraphs on dementia in a newspaper article once a year. Is that enough to give the public a transformative understanding of dementia (do people even read newspapers so carefully)? Will the benefits percolate enough to change the lives of caregivers? Well…

As a caregiver, I often felt isolated and misunderstood, and as a volunteer who helps other caregivers, I find many fellow dementia caregivers in India feel the same. While some lucky caregivers get a supportive environment, the vast majority do not. Here are examples of what many caregivers say about the people around them (relatives and friends and even volunteers and professionals):

  • These people, they’ve never been caregivers, they just don’t understand
  • All that advice is so impractical. It’s obvious they’ve never done any caregiving
  • I went to a doctor and he didn’t know about dementia
  • I won’t talk to volunteers any more. They just give lectures
  • Why don’t people know more? No one should have to face so much ignorance
  • “They” (“Someone”/ “The Government”) should do something about it. How can we handle all this much work without any support?

Yup, it is true that persons who have never been caregivers cannot grasp how tough caregiving is, how heart-breaking, how tiring. They do not know how isolated and unsupported many of us feel. Two paragraphs in a newspaper once a year don’t give a flash of cosmic insight.

I often chat with caregivers who feel more should be done, and even some caregivers who want to do something themselves. They are currently overwhelmed with their caregiving work, but hope to do something later.

But often other things come in the way “later”, when their care responsibilities are over. Burnout, for example. Depression. The need to move on, the expectations of their friends, relatives, and colleagues that they will put away the “negative” thoughts and “be normal.” Or just the deep sorrow associated with even the word, dementia, the face that pops up in the mind, the memories. Sometimes even crippling guilt, though there is no ground for it after such hard work for so many years. Then they also need to renew their careers and make up for the lost years. And they have to take up roles and responsibilities they had suspended–they have to be a parent, spouse, sibling, child. Resume other volunteer work they had committed to. Do that much-neglected health check-up. And they may hesitate to be seen as a dementia caregiver in a society that acknowledges neither dementia nor the role of caregiving. Family members may discourage, saying, why talk about private things? Can’t you let it alone now? They may lack the energy to work around all this or to contribute anonymously…

Some caregivers share, but often in sporadic ways, localized within safe circles of supportive friends and relatives. Sustained effort is difficult to put in. And seeing that the overall momentum is low, others who may have shared also hesitate to step forward.

As caregivers, most of us have felt that only other caregivers can understand our situation. Yet we also expect that somehow, others will start understanding us, and that some “they” should make this shift in understanding possible. But I wonder, how can we expect others to understand if we don’t talk about it? How can people grasp the challenges of caregiving if they have not experienced it and if caregivers don’t speak up and share their stories?

It’s not easy to stand up and share one’s personal experiences of being a caregiver. I know, I have done it–not just in online blogs but in face-to-face sessions with volunteers and while talking to reporters. I’ve done it again and again, and it has never been easy. I find it very hurtful to talk about some things. Sometimes I face scepticism or criticism, and that hurts. Sometimes listeners say I am “negative” without realizing that I don’t actually want to go back to those memories. A doctor once told me (in a workshop) that I was misleading people by describing the challenges of caregiving because taking care of elders was every family’s duty and people should do it without expecting anything from others. Families should not expect or need support, he told me and the audience. So yes, it hurts to talk openly, to admit to past mistakes and problems and emotional conflicts, but not speaking up seems worse because such silence could mean more caregivers will face the sort of problems I faced. And some people do listen, they ask questions, they try and understand, and that makes it worth it. Awareness grows in small steps…

I think that if more caregivers speak up, we may build the momentum needed to spread awareness. We cannot expect non-caregiver volunteers to fully explain what only we caregivers have experienced. We cannot expect others to understand if we have not opened our hearts and tried to make them understand.

One thing I have learned in these past years: there is no “they” who will set things right. We have to be the “they.” We have to say what it is like to be a caregiver.

September is over, the World Alzheimer’s Month is over. But the journey of caring continues day after day and our efforts to spread awareness must also continue.

Are you a caregiver? Have you ever felt people do not understand what it is like to be a caregiver? Maybe you’ve wished somehow that the situation would change, that non-caregivers would understand you better and know how to support you. Maybe you have wondered if you can do something to improve matters. Please use the comments below to write about what would enable caregivers like you to share your experiences, needs, and problems with non-caregivers. Maybe you can thinking of sharing that could be done in small, private circles of persons close to you. Or maybe you have some ideas on what would enable caregivers to share in public. Maybe you have faced some specific problems that stopped you from talking about your experiences. Please write about it below. You don’t need to give your name to add a comment; use your initials or use a pseudonym, whatever you feel comfortable. The comment form will ask for your email id, but the email id will not be visible to those who see your comment.

I’d love to read what you have to say.

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Personal update: A year after my mother’s death

My mother died one year ago; it’s time for me to post a consolidated personal update. Here goes…

I’ve written a lot about my mother in the past. I’ve shared memories of her as a person (including my childhood with her). And I have, over multiple posts, shared episodes of her dementia journey in this blog. I don’t really have much to add to that right now, and I’ll use this entry to share, instead, my experiences of this last year as I have tried to adjust after her passing away.

My mother’s death was a major shift for me not just emotionally but also because I no longer had to coordinate her care. A year ago, most of my life centered was centering around my mother’s care and also my efforts to help other caregivers. This was my main form of self-identity. Of course I was doing other things, too — I had other work and responsibilities, I read books (gobbled them may be a better way to express the truth), I took long walks, I did jigsaws, I saw an occasional movie DVD. But my self-identity was closely knitted around my mother’s care, and this part of my role/ identity collapsed overnight.

One immediate consequence of my mother’s death was disorientation. I’d become used to a constant state of alertness about her, expecting any crisis to happen at any time. I always carried my mobile, even for a five minute trip to a shop. That I no longer needed to remain alert was very odd. I would feel vaguely guilty that I no longer needed to keep her in my mind all the time. I even have intense anxiety episodes  sometimes–for example, waking up with a horrible feeling that something’s wrong or about to go wrong, and that it is related to my mother. Even after remembering that she is dead, and telling myself that, the anxiety takes a while to subside. I’m relieved to share that this disorientation and anxiety has kept reducing over time, both in intensity and frequency.

Then there have been these memories of my mother. While she was alive, I was anchored to her current reality and did not have the time, energy, or need to recall past memories related to her. Her death removed that anchor to the present. I found myself rudderless in terms of a context to think about her. Memories from childhood and my youth all rushed at me with equal weight and validity. I found this distressing and disorienting. Good and happy memories made me nostalgic and I felt a great sense of loss. Bad memories (my mother was not a perfect and neither was I, so we had our share of clashes) brought back restlessness and regret about issues/ grievances we never smoothened out. Both types of memories, good and bad, were disorienting and left me anxious.

In the past year, I have also met many persons who knew my mother, and their recollections of my mother has affected me. Some were her peers, and are active and fit; chatting with them made me acutely aware of how my mother could have been without her dementia, reinforcing my sense of loss.

I’ve been trying to work my way out of these experiences, and also been examining how to carve out my future.

I had not planned for my life after my mother’s death, because any such plans/ dreams could have distracted me from my role and caused me to resent my caregiving work and responsibility. I had a few vague ideas on things I’d like to try, but nothing clear, tangible, prioritized.  So yes, I now have some clear spaces in my life, but I have not experienced any paradigm shift. I’ve realized: Removal of some activities and responsibilities from the day does not automatically confer the mindset and energy to use the cleared up spaces. How does one do what one wants, if one is not clear of what one wants?

A major problem I am facing is lack of energy. All my life (except for a period when I was quite ill), I’ve had abundant energy. It was not always positive energy, sometimes it was excessively negative, but energy as such was never in short supply. This last one year I’ve been so low in energy that I sometimes fear I’ll never recover my drive and energy and that I’ve changed in an irreversible way. Even outings and vacations are tiring. I go for an outing and return without feeling refreshed, almost like I’ve been working hard at “Project Enjoyment” and I now need a vacation to recover 🙂

I’d like to add that every caregiver is different, the situation around the caregiving is different. Grief and loss and the process of healing, recovery and rehabilitation vary from person to person, but there are commonalities, too. I’ve been fortunate inasmuch as I’m in touch with other caregivers who are coping with bereavement and know that my experiences are not exceptional in either range or degree. Many caregivers, after months or years of their loss, continue to feel anxiety or disorientation and remain uncertain about what to do next. The impact is highest for persons whose lives were woven around caregiving and who saw the severe deterioration at very close quarters. Even within the same family, others who were not as involved or as close to the person who died have different recovery pace/ paths. I’ve known caregivers who were so numb at the death that it took them over a month to be able to cry. Books on bereavement and grieving (yes, I read some) also often say this process could take years.

The problem is, we see only the outside part of others, and so if we are feeling confused, disoriented, or anxious or irritable, we may feel we are the only persons with this dark, small, vulnerable inside. We think everyone else handles loss much better, and that we are being inadequate and negative and are disappointing people around us.

From what I see around me, it seems that society expects people to be reasonably active and positive within a few weeks, or maybe a month or so of the death. After that socially accepted grace period, people start saying things like, “when will you move on,” and “she’s at peace, why can’t you move on,” and “come on, be positive, you are free now,” and “snap out of it now, for heaven’s sake” and “when will you get normal” and things like that. Perhaps these statements reflect a general discomfort that people have while interacting with a person who is feeling “low.” Because they don’t know what to say or do, they are tempted to dismiss feelings and they say things that would stop persons from expressing their grief. Or they avoid the person till enough time has passed and they need not mention the bereavement.

Any trauma needs time to recover from. I suspect that anyone (not just caregivers) who has undergone something traumatic/ been bereaved gets sympathy only for a limited time window. People around them “cut them slack” for just a few days or weeks. I suspect that this socially normal duration is far shorter than what the person may need. And the grace period assumed is probably even shorter if the person who died was very ill and fully dependent, persons about whom neighbors, relatives and friends feel justified in saying that the person “is better off dead” and “death must be such a relief.”

Anyway, in terms of future directions…

For the past three months, I have been organizing and consolidating the resources I have created for dementia caregivers. Based on past emails from caregivers and my notes on phone interactions, I have modified and enhanced my existing resources. For example, sometimes persons sent in queries for which answers are already available on my site, so I added more questions in my FAQ and modified pages to make related links obvious, or added some more information. I have checked my to-do lists and wish-lists, completed most items and added the remaining to a new wish-list. I’ve also put in behind-the-scenes technical work to streamline my maintenance effort later. It’s been slow and tiring work.Sometimes I feel that this cleaning up and consolidation effort is the right way to organize myself and free mental resources; at other times, I fear that I am using this consolidation as a rational, legitimate-sounding way of procrastinating 🙂

As of now, I expect that I will continue to provide support to dementia caregivers in India through creation and maintenance of online resources, but I’m still in a flux about what else I want to do and how I’ll combine all the things I want to try out.

I’ve always been a curious person, and I enjoy learning new things. But time is always a constraint, and my current low energy poses a problem. On some days I feel excited about what I want to try, then I feel overwhelmed about how can I ever fit it all into a day or even decide what to start with, and finally I reach the other end of the pendulum swing where I tell myself that I don’t need to do any of this, why bother! On the plus side, I have tried some new things, found that I may like some, and that I don’t like others. Vacations and sightseeing, for example, don’t interest me much; I have found I don’t enjoy the malls in other cities any more than malls in my city, and I’m not into history or religion or eating different cuisines from local hotspots. But I love walks of all sorts. I have plans to try some types of craft.

Overall, I’m not unhappy with my recovery pace, but it has been more difficult and long-drawn than I’d hoped it would be. I continue to be gentle with myself, though, and hope things will keep evolving. And my future activities are still nebulous, but not as nebulous as they were earlier.

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Platitudes, shame-and-blame games, and avoidance of introspection on complex causes

I’m concerned at the way some persons associated with the field of elder/ dementia care spout platitudes and stereotypical blame/ judgments in public and social media forums. I know these people mean well, but from what I understand, such statements don’t convey anything new or useful. Worse, they may harm the situation, for example, they alienate many family caregivers who feel defensive and may hesitate to ask for information and help, assuming they will not be understood and will just be criticized as persons who lack sufficient love, duty, or culture.

I hope my statements in this blog don’t offend anyone; I am merely sharing my thoughts and opinion as a possible area to ponder on. Let me explain my concern.

Let me take platitudes first. I think platitudes are simplistic but often considered so correct and profound that they stop people from clear thinking or deeper investigation into possible causes and solutions. They have a preachy “you should” in them, but nothing helpful in the form of suggestions on related “this is how you can”. And because they are simple one-liners, they ignore many relevant aspects that affect relationships and care.

Take, for example, statements like “our parents sacrificed everything for us,” and “our parents gave us love, we should love them” or “our culture respects elders” or “we must always make our parents happy.” I’ve yet to meet anyone who disagrees with them, at least publicly. Prima facie, these seem good and moral and cultured. More important, it seems like all we need to do is love and respect and care for our parents like any good person should, and there would be no problem at all.

The reality is far more complex, both in terms of the complicated family relationships and in terms of the difficulties adult children face while handling multiple responsibilities and making compromises and choices.

Let me take just one aspect to elaborate–an implicit assumption that anyone, just by virtue of crossing an age threshold and having a child, is an unquestionable model of great parenting and selfless love.

Many of us in India have recently viewed a series on TV that talked openly of some problems usually swept under the carpet–things like female foeticide, dowry harassment and related violence/ killing, parents forcing children to marry, sexual abuse of children by elders and guardians, domestic violence. Who does these acts? Are there no elders amongst the perpetrators? And do they all die before they cross the age of sixty? The TV program provided alarming data and statistics regarding the prevalence of these problems. Though the show audience looked surprised when the data was presented, I’m willing to bet that most of them were well aware of these problems, and have seen them in their immediate family/ social circles, or even experienced them personally.

Read the full post here

Seven months after mother’s death: updates and musings

It is seven months since my mother died, and I sometimes get queries on how I am doing, so I’m sharing an update.

My mother’s death meant I lost the person my life had been revolving around for the last several years. My sense of identity changed. My role, responsibility and activities needed a rethink. Given the sweeping change caused by her death, I think I’m handling my situation well enough.

I am living a reasonably active and productive life. While I have not firmly decided the way I will divide my time and energy across current and new activities, I am clearer now than I was some months ago. Redefining my life activities and directions will take more time, but that’s okay; I prefer to proceed cautiously and experiment with small changes, see what works, what doesn’t, and tweak things rather than do something dramatic and then have regrets.

I continue to face challenges on the emotional front, where my readjustment is slower. I continue to ponder over my new identity, my desires and my possible prioritizations. And, I also try to understand what “moving on” means. I tell myself that while a situation may change abruptly, the related habits and personal characteristics take time to change, and that well-set patterns have an implicit inertia.

My years of caregiving changed me in many ways. I am different in what I like to do, what I find important, what I am curious about or concerned about, what I feel about issues and incidents, what I want to buy or see, and so on. Some of my earlier friends now have life direction, interests, and priorities that are very different from mine, and there may not be enough commonalities to resume friendship. Our paths have diverged, and I am not much in touch with them. I am trying to make new friends, but my somewhat introvert nature makes that tough.

Seeing my mother’s decline and staying emotionally close and connected through the process, is helpful in the process of closure, but even now, not a day passes when I don’t think of her or miss her in a gentle way. And there is a sense of loss I experience when I see how she spent her last several years alongside how her peer group is faring.

In the past few months after her death, I have met my mother’s friends and peers, many of them after several years. They ask me about her last few years, or start telling me stories from their shared past. And they bring back memories of a mother who was younger and more active. As I talk to these friends of my mother, I notice how, though they are my mother’s contemporaries, they are physically active and cognitively sharp. I become acutely aware of what my mother could have been like without her dementia, and how different our interactions would have been. It hurts.

It will take time to find my new equilibrium of friends and interests and to find my peace with the overall loss. I also know this will need effort on my part, and this is what people call “moving on.”

But what is “moving on?”

I sometimes have people advising me that I should not think of the past and “move on” and forget what happened because now I am “free.”

I find that approach strange and unacceptable. It assumes that my life was a black hole when I was a caregiver, and that is not true. My years as a caregiver are an integral part of my life. They had their ups and downs, like any other phase of life has. The years involved work, responsibility, and tension. They also gave me the fulfillment of staying emotionally connected to my mother, they taught me many things about life, identity, joy. They changed my perspective about what matters and what does not, what dignity is, what connection is, and so on.

As far as I understand, “moving on” is something that happens all the time, for everyone. I think any “moving on” can be robust and wholesome only if it involves resolution and peace and consolidation of lessons learned. It cannot be achieved by amnesia or denial or pushing the past under the carpet.

Anyway, I have started consolidating my dementia care thoughts and my experience sharing, hoping that sharing and structuring will help me neaten my mind and perhaps help others. As part of this, here’s one e-interview (A Caregiver’s Role) and below is a video where I share my late stage dementia care experience. (You can also view it directly on youtube here.)

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