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Grappling with dementia, Alzheimer’s – just too hard a test

A few serious films tend to reflect contemporary issues, including health issues such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. Most of the stories on celluloid are heart-rending and throws some light on a growing problem that is afflicting many today. Ranjita Biswas highlights some of these films and speaks to a few people to drive home the point that tackling dementia or Alzheimer’s is a huge challenge, especially for the caregiver

An old couple lives in Santiniketan. The husband (Soumitra Chatterjee) takes care of his wife (Swatilekha Dasgupta) suffering from Alzheimer’s disease with a singular devotion though their children living in Kolkata offer to help. The wife does not recognise him at all; in fact, thinks him to be an imposter. That is story of a recent hit Bengali film Belashuru. Incidentally, it was the last film for both the thespians; they died after the shooting was over.

Another recent Bengali film Srabaner Dhara is on the same theme but with a slight twist, where a professor (Soumitra again) cannot recognise his much younger wife and only remembers his first wife who died long ago and, so, his wife tries to take on that persona by play-acting as the first wife to keep him happy.

These heart-rending stories on celluloid focus on a growing problem that is afflicting our society, whether in our country or abroad (think of films like Love Once, Amour, The Notebook, Still Alice, Elizabeth is Missing, etc.) Serious films tend to reflect contemporary issues, dementia and Alzheimer’s are such. In fact, the story of Belashuru is based on a real-life couple of north Kolkata, the directors say, and the husband even went through a second real-life wedding just in case his beloved wife could remember him as her husband. Sadly, it did not happen that way.

Unfortunately, this disease, that is, mental decline, is irreversible though doctors, researchers from all over the world are trying to find a solution, or at least trying to put it off from setting in as long as possible . In Alzheimer’s, a common form of dementia, immediate memory recedes while memory of the past remains more alive. Dementia and Alzheimer’s are not conditions that have suddenly appeared on the horizon. They did exist earlier but some of the symptoms, such as forgetting things or people’s names, were brushed off as inevitable signs of old age. Health care professionals observe that the number of people suffering from them is definitely on the rise today.

Dementia is currently the seventh leading cause of death among all diseases and one of the major causes of disability and dependency among older people worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, “currently more than 55 million people live with dementia worldwide, and there are nearly 10 million new cases every year”. “More detection is happening compared to when it was considered as a normal part of getting old and people are approaching professionals. The biggest risk factor of developing dementia is old age. Our population is living longer due to better health care. Lifestyle diseases, air pollution are also contributing to developing this condition currently,” says Nilanjana Maulik, secretary, Alzheimer’s & Related Disorders Society of India (ARDSI), Kolkata Chapter.

As people grapple with the problem of someone in the family suffering, there is also more awareness that has been created, whether by watching films on the subject or reading about the condition. While agreeing on this, Maulik feels that there is still a huge lack of understanding, both among the general public and even among health professionals. Significantly, dementia is also increasingly affecting younger people. According to Amitabha Ghosh, president, ARDSI, around one-third of their dementia patients are below the age of 65. Even some people in their 40s are showing the signs, they find.

Among the signs that dementia has set in are,  short term memory loss, repetitiveness, misplacing things, changes in mood and personality, difficulty with familiar tasks, Maulik explains. Unfortunately, there is no medication available yet that can cure dementia. But some medicines may help with some of the symptoms for a time. Doctors may also prescribe other medications to treat problems brought on by dementia, such as depression, trouble in sleeping, or irritability. “Medication used for treatment is effective in the very early stages of the condition,” Maulik informs.

Healthy lifestyle practices – physical exercises, for example, as also a good diet and good sleep are important.  A recent study by the National Institute of Health, a part of the US Department of Health and Human Services, finds that people in their 50s and 60s who sleep six hours or less a night are more likely to develop dementia later in life, emphasising the importance of good sleep habits.

Mental stimulation is recommended by doctors too; for example, doing cross-word puzzles, playing chess, etc. Learning something new, such as a new language, is helpful. While trying to construct sentences with the help of grammar, reading books, even if slowly, can challenge the brain. Staying socially connected reduces stress and it is important that senior people get associated with various such activities. As time hangs in the retired phase of life, even having a gossip session with friends has a positive effect on the mind, doctors say.

Of course, it is a huge challenge for caregivers when dementia or Alzheimer’s affects a close family member. The caregiver’s role is the most significant in this regard, Maulik says. Understanding, accepting and managing the condition effectively is the key. “It’s a round-the-clock responsibility that needs both mental and physical stamina. From dealing with the impact of the disease to handling the stress with patience, the caregiver spends 70 hours a week on average in this role.”

This is something Snehalatha, 68, knows very well. Hailing from Kerala, she and her family have been living in Kolkata for decades. Her husband, who died in 2021, was bedridden for three years. “It started with Parkinson’s Disease first and he couldn’t attend office. Then he started having hallucinations and couldn’t relate to the present though when I fed him, he ate,” she recalls. Later, he was completely bedridden, and had severe bedsores. But Snehalata did it all alone (her sons live outside the city) besides continuing her home-teaching classes with students.

Didn’t she feel it was too much sometimes? “Yes, I was tired sometimes, I am not young either, but I thought it was my duty to look after him,” she says.

(The writer is a senor journalist based in Kolkata.)

July – September 2022