Life after oblivion

Radha S Nair | Updated on January 19, 2018 Published on February 12, 2016

BLinK_Tinted glass.jpg   -  Shutterstock

In sickness and in health: Radha S Nair, retired professor of English, with her husband V Sreedharan Nair.

In sickness and in health: Radha S Nair, retired professor of English, with her husband V Sreedharan Nair.   -  Special Arrangement

In his fast-disintegrating brain, relationships and realities do not matter. A wife’s account of turning caregiver to her spouse affected by dementia

An arranged marriage is quite often a coming together of contrasts. Take my case — my spouse and I were from different backgrounds. I was supposed to be a city girl educated in then Madras though my family lived in Wellington, a cantonment near Coonoor. It was no city, but pretty cosmopolitan in its denizens and their outlook on life. Living in Kozhikode had not urbanised my husband, he still retained many traits of the landed gentry, hailing as he did from a tharavad (ancestral house) where the oldest male member was the karnavan (family head). While my six siblings and I were taught by example by our doctor father to do most things on our own, my husband’s family always had minions in tow to aid the most mundane tasks, much to my annoyance.

Our life together began in a small dwelling; it hardly deserved the dignified title of ‘house’. It was set in a compound of graceful coconut palms and blessed by a shrine to Lord Shiva at the entrance. It seems incredible now that we had no electricity, or piped water, or telephone — the basic essentials, mind you. Today, one would have to add television, computer, fridge, washing machine and mixer-grinder to that list, but these gadgets did not adorn the homestead! And yet I did not find life impossible. One did not need a fitness studio or gymnasium — drawing water from the well kept one spry and active. And for extra exercise, one could perform graceful aerobics on the sawdust stoves. Sawdust had to be packed outside the stove and a funnel created in the centre. Producing such a marvel was indeed an intricate business.

Our firstborn arrived after just two years, the next one took her own sweet time — nine years to be precise, but she arrived on the same day as her elder sister! Sons-in-law embellished the tribe over the years and today, we have three fine grandchildren too.

The one person who remained perennially unmoved by our family’s triumphs and tribulations was my husband. He did no adjusting at all, just ploughed his easy-going furrow. The girls used to say their father closely resembled the protagonist in Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s classic movie Elippathayam (The Rat-Trap), who is very feudal and medieval in his outlook. Paradoxically, my husband’s no-nonsense attitude did help when I experienced a bout of depression following my mother’s demise. There was no unnecessary sympathising, which would have increased the wallowing in misery!

Ours is a tale of human beings with all their weaknesses and foibles. I admit that my husband lacked an interest in hard work. Therefore, we never had any savings to speak of. Yet, today, we are not dependent on our daughters because I enjoy a good pension as a retiree. Having an independent income in one’s old age definitely reduces a great deal of stress, especially when there are substantial monthly medical costs.

Our family was luckier than most in that, we faced no unexpected bereavement or illness or tragic events. So it was a shock to realise around 10-12 years ago, that my husband was experiencing irrational memory lapses, and crucially, unable to account for the money he spent. And so gradually, dementia transformed me into a caregiver and home nurse.

Dementia is indeed an implacable foe as it relentlessly attacks the victim, makes him lose his individuality and leaves him a shallow shell of his former self. It is a progressively degenerative condition causing memory loss, personality changes and erratic behaviour. In my husband’s case, the condition has progressed through several stages — initially, he was prone to violence, was aggressive and argumentative, even asking him to bathe would provoke him. Now, he is much more passive, calmer and thankfully, more cooperative. But he is unable to carry out daily habits like bathing, cleaning oneself, having a shave and so on. A male nurse comes home thrice a week to help, but one has to anticipate basic needs. Though still active at 85, he is increasingly disoriented, unpredictable in his behaviour, and unfortunately, also prone to mindlessly eating anything he sees. He has also, in these past five years, gone missing thrice. Miraculously enough, we managed to find him each and every time. That is one of the greatest challenges in caring for a person with dementia — they are prone to wandering. I, therefore, have to be alert and ensure that our front gate is always locked.

Through much of our married life, my husband was a chauvinistic lawyer, who would socialise with his fellow professionals and friends, neglecting his family. Now because of his illness, ironically enough, he is dependent on me and uncomplainingly enjoys my company. Throughout our marriage, my husband took all the decisions in the family. Today, I am in sole charge of managing the house, our finances, and my husband too — a role reversal of sorts.

It did come as a shock to me, to realise we had spent no less than 50 years together as husband and wife. The occasion on December 30 last year, however, held no significance for him. He is no longer capable of such thought. But then, togetherness is about living the routine of a humdrum day, ignoring the moods, the irascibility and unpredictability. Togetherness, as the Christian wedding sacrament puts it so beautifully, is also about being there for each other — in sickness and in health, good times and bad.

Radha S Nair is a Kozhikode-based retired professor of English

Published on February 12, 2016

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