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.

[Top of page] [Perspective 2 sub-topics]

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.

[Top of page] [Perspective 2 sub-topics]

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.[Top of page]

References

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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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Forcing caregivers into a one-dimensional care role

While it takes time for people around a dementia family to accept that dementia is being caused by a disease, an interesting (read: sad) effect is that when people accept the importance of the caregiver role, many also assume that the primary caregiver’s life should revolve around care, and that he she should not and cannot do anything too different from caregiving.

To explain what I mean, let me share some things I have been asked/ told when seen outside home by people who knew my mother had dementia:

  • Oh, you are here, but what about your Amma? Is she alone? Who is with her? Who is taking care of her?
  • I know you have offered to help me, but I don’t want you to neglect your Amma to do my work.
  • I don’t understand how you can go out when your mother is so unwell. You should be with Auntie.

Typically, these statements come from persons who do not know my mother at all/ have never met her, and to whom I have explained the care arrangements around my mother umpteen times and so they know that I spend quite a bit of time with my mother. But that’s not enough for these caregiving purists.

Though I remain polite when subjected to such statements, I do feel unhappy at such comments. Read the full post here

Wasted resources, missed out roles

When I was sixteen years old, I got admission in an engineering college and ended up joining a class where I was the only female. This was back when people did not even know that women were “allowed” to become engineers, and just about everybody who talked to me about it was critical about my “wasting” a seat that a boy could have taken and become an engineer (all except fellow female batch-mates and my parents and a few of their very close friends).

Relatives told me the course would be too tough. One cousin who was studying engineering told me that I would never be able to do “workshop”. And just about everyone told me I was wasting a seat, I was wasting the nation’s money, the taxpayer’s money, because after all I was a woman and I would never take up a job, and even if I could, I would leave it for my “family” later, and for bringing up my kids. I was told again and again that I should quit the seat so that a “deserving” boy could become an engineer instead.

In my class I encountered two species of classmates; one, the silent ones who never said anything, so I never knew whether they were hostile about me or just cowed down by the second species, and two, the hostile ones who reminded me that being a female I was incompetent and also wasting a seat.

Now I can use this post to write about many things that have happened since.

I could write about how many of my engineer classmates went on to sell soap and colas or read balance sheets in banks, careers which possibly don’t need knowledge of Fourier Transforms or resistor color codes. Or I could point out that many chose to be part of the “brain drain” in the days when leaving the country was considered unpatriotic (but of course, now pravasi bharatiyas welcomed back open-armed, because times do change, and society does become more mature and open). Then again, amusingly, some ex-classmates are sending their daughters to IIT coaching classes, and I doubt if they remember how hostile they were towards the female engineers when they were students.

Hey, I could even write about how unfair it felt at “sweet” sixteen to be viewed as a potential housewife (housewives became “homemakers” decades later) and a potential mother and not as someone able to contribute using the brain. It also induced suffocation about my future.

But strangely, it is another angle that strikes me when I look anew at the past.

What strikes me now is that, in all those comments about how I would give up my job when I had a child to bring up, people were clearly recognizing child-rearing as a task that needs intense work and attention.

But no one talked that way about the intense work and attention that goes into tending to humans at the other end of the life curve.

No one ever told me, for example, that I would be wasting national taxpayer money when I quit my job to tend my parents. No one said, you will end up doing so when you are at the peak of your career, young enough to be productive, yet experienced enough to really add value to the field you are in, so everything everyone has invested in you will go waste. No one recognized the elder care work, the role, the criticality of the role.

I wonder why.

Again and again, I am puzzled at how a society that prides itself on its respect for elders and the need for families to rally for their care does not register that if such care has to be given, it has to be planned for, factored into life choices, and so on.

Read the full post here

Over years of caregiving…

Time for self-centeredness. Today is about I, me, myself…

I’ve often written about how I have tried to care for my mother, made mistakes at times, succeeded at times, made changes in my attitudes and in the environment around her and so on. I’ve talked about my involvement in dementia awareness and helping caregivers and all that.

Today, I’m talking about how (and if) these last several years have changed me. I’m looking back at the journey I started without knowing twelve years ago, then began resenting because it was a can’t-get-off-this-ride journey, and have finally slumped comfortably into (for the time being).
Read the full post

Care for everyone but a dementia patient…

Time to start writing about the changes I tried to make in my life to handle caregiving better. This is going to be another set of mistakes laid bare on the page, sigh, braided together with spots that worked…

But before I start examining and describing what I did,  let me step back to look at some basic premises.

A lot of people I meet say that everyone makes adjustments to take care of elders, and I think what they wonder is why talk/ write about something everyone does–surely, it could not be that different for dementia patients.

So I’ll start this phase of my blogging by describing my caregiving experience for my father, who was absolutely sharp mentally right to the end. Sharp, articulate, and very aware, even on the last day of his life.
Read the full post

Hurting herself without meaning to

One of the most worrisome part of the situation of my mother in those-mid-stage dementia days was how she would keep harming herself.

In the Delhi summer, with the sun shining at its hottest in a patch of the walkway in front of our apartment, my mother would dash out of the house and stand exactly at the spot where the sun lit up her scalp. (This was before I’d placed a lock on her door to prevent such outbound dashes from the apartment). Some time would pass before I checked her room and find her missing. When I would realize what had happened and rush out to fetch her back inside, she would sometimes agree easily, but need persuasion at other times. I would try explaining about heat strokes, but she would say she didn’t feel hot. “See, I don’t sweat,” she’d point out. To me her not sweating only meant the heat would hit her worse, and it did. She’d get fever, she’d shiver, she’d get incoherent.

In winter, the cold Delhi winter, she’d throw off her quilt and peel off her woollens and then sit on her bed, curled tight, till I spotted her. She would get upset if I put on the heater. Curled tight into a ball because she was cold, she would refuse to relax enough for me to slip her cardigan on. I’d have to use blankets, hot water bottles, gentle massaging of her body, to make her loosen up enough to wear her woolens back.
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She doesn’t cook for me

I had started working from home before my mother’s dementia-related problems became prominent. We moved in with her after my father’s death, when none of us suspected that those tiny problems we saw could have a medical reason. She seemed normal enough, except for her growing balance problems. I would do the cooking because I wasn’t comfortable with her working in the kitchen because she could sway at any moment, and would grab whatever she saw. Sometimes one would find her on the floor, a chair fallen on top of her–ouch 😦

I handled all the cooking with some help from my husband. Most of the time I cooked food the way my mother had cooked for me, using the same spices, cutting the veggies in the same shape and size, making dishes as close to the ones she had cooked. I did this so that she was comfortable with the food and could eat well.  Except that now my mother wanted food the way her grandmother cooked for her…

Because I worked through the day, I would finish off cooking in the morning. Daal, veggies, roties, all would be placed in hotcases, so that anyone could eat whenever he/ she wanted without my having to interrupt my work. This was something my mother herself had done for years now–finishing off the cooking early to have the day free for whatever she wanted to do.

But my mother had changed now. Her standards of “proper homes” had become more traditional, reverting to her grandmother’s days. She began complaining at this early morning dispose-off-the-cooking method, and I had to start making the rotis fresh in the afternoon, as is common in North Indian houses, because, when she was a child, she used to eating fresh rotis. I tried to get my maid to come at noon for making roties, but didn’t manage.
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Murderers, thieves, and an old woman amidst them

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

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

Here are a couple of incidents that made me register the fact that my mother was facing genuine problems that were totally disorienting her and contorting her perception of reality. That her abilities had deteriorated to a point where she was unable to understand things we all assumed to be simple.

One incident was during her evening walks. I had managed to get a maid who would take my mother for a walk every evening. After a few days of trying to take her down to walk the compound’s roads, and narrowly missing falling because my mother walked in too fast and too imbalanced a way, the venue of this evening exercise was moved to the relatively safe corridor with its even floor and grab rails.

One day, the maid told me that Mataji had asked whether it was morning or evening, and not believed the maid when she said evening. Sure enough, a few minutes later, my mother called me and asked me the same question. I was in a sort of fog of disbelief as I told her it was evening. “Are you sure?” she asked. “Yes,” I replied. “How do you know?” she asked.

That was quite an unexpected problem.
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Learning from our experiences…

Over the past few days, I  have forced myself to think about the far past of my mother’s situation, when there were hints I missed, and fears she hid by blustering through and raging, and the distance and the pain. It seems such a waste in this harsh light of hindsight; why am I forcing myself to look at it?

After all, it hurts to remember those things and write them out and expose them. So why?

The answer is simple: I may be at a safe place now, in relative peace, bridges repaired, connections forged, but there are so many others who face today problems similar to what I faced then…
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For Those New to Caregiving

A few days ago, a friend asked me to jot down thoughts I’d like to share with a newbie caregiver–someone thrust into caregiving that could be intense or extended, but was not restricted to caregiving for a dementia patient.

Here it is; if it seems useful to you, share the link with others. And I’d love to receive comments …(ETA: The PDF version is available here.)

Tips For Those New to Caregiving

By Swapna Kishore

Fifteen years ago, my father collapsed while getting up from a chair. A few hours later, instead of editing a document I had to submit to a client, I was trying to figure out how to look after someone bed-ridden thanks to a hip fracture. I assumed then that the situation was temporary, but as days, weeks, and months went by, my life kept changing to accommodate caregiving–first for my father, who never quite recovered, and then for my mother, who has dementia.

My caregiving journey is dotted with successes and failures, days of fulfillment and days of frustration. I’ve been sharing my experiences through my blog and website, and in support group meetings.  Some days ago, a friend asked me to jot down suggestions for people newly thrust into the role of caregiving. Here is what I think…

Most of us have very little idea of the intensity involved in extended caregiving. We may have looked after someone with a fever, or spent a week or so supporting someone recovering from a surgery, but that is quite different from caring for a person suffering from a serious or disabling condition such as late-stage cancer, cerebral palsy, dementia, or organ failure. We may not have imagined ourselves (given our gender/ qualification/ skills/ good luck) as persons who may need to provide such care.
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Caregiving, identity, impermanence

As caregiving has occupied a chunk of my timeshare, mind-share, emotion-share, my sense of identity has become bound with this role. I find it affecting all my other roles, and it remains in my mind like a persistent buzz, even when I am not handling any related work.

For a while now, this has puzzled me.

First off, there is nothing unique about handling multiple roles. All of us juggle roles, and cope with it. Even a school-going boy balances between roles: student in class, boy playing cricket, participant in a painting competition, fond (or not so fond) son, polite son of colleague at his father’s office party, and so on. When older, the balance moves to balancing job roles (boss, subordinate, colleague), family (parent, child, sibling, spouse), participating in community activities, and so on.
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Pacing for effective caregiving

One of the dilemmas I face is how to care without feeling burnout.

What my mother wants is that I sit near her all day, holding her hand. I cannot do it. I could do it for a day or two, maybe a week or two tops. But not month after month.  Not an year, two years, three. And burning out or getting resentful won’t help, because I’ll end up giving up just when her need for me goes up.
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Preparing for the caregiving role

As a caregiver, the most unpleasant phase for me was when I acted as a functional caregiver.  I tried my best to do things right, but had not grasped the full impact of the disease on my mother’s personality and behavior, and didn’t know how to avert or handle challenging behaviors. I used  ‘common sense’ and rationality, and when they failed, I got frustrated, irritated, angry, exhausted, or just depressed. Those emotions didn’t help, either. 😦

I was stressed, and struggling to keep a normal life running so that this stressful activity did not swallow me up.

The switch happened when I sat down to review my life and saw how all-pervading the impact of my caregiving role was. My social life had vanished, my circle of friends pruned down significantly. I had been forced to adjust my career direction and intensity dramatically. My mindset had changed, my emotional and intellectual mind-share had changed.
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