It started with chopsticks

24 Jun 2011By Loh Kwek Leong, Singapore

My late mother had dementia for a few years before she died. It started innocuously enough. Her chopsticks would occasionally slip from her hand while we were having dinner, and she would put sometimes put her foot into the wrong shoe.

We didn’t realise that these would be the first signs of dementia; we simply thought she was just getting old and forgetful. When her condition got worse, she would often accuse the maid of not making her lunch or stealing from her purse. It took us some time to realise that our beloved mother was losing her mind but when we did, it was very painful for us.

Who are you?

There were days when I would come home from work and mother would stare at me like I was a total stranger and ask point blank who I was. She would frighten my wife by asking who the man sitting on the stairs in my living room was when there was nobody there. Or by pointing to the dining room and saying there was someone crouching under the dinner table. My wife used to be scared out of her wits when mother said things like that.

Panic

She once had to be warded in a hospital because of her weak heart. Later that evening, the hospital called, saying that my mother was causing a scene. When I arrived at the hospital, I found her tied to her bed. The nurses said she had taken a chair and tried to climb out of the window at her ward on the third storey.

When I asked mother why she did that, she said the hospital was filled with Filipino maids who were all trying to kill her. The green uniforms the nurses donned gave her the impression they were all maids.

I later learnt that people with dementia should never be placed alone in an unfamiliar environment. It causes them to panic, sometimes hysterically. Mother was perfectly calm when I brought her home from the hospital.

Ghosts from the past

Mother also had diabetes and she suffered a cut on her foot. The wound just wouldn’t heal and eventually got so bad the doctors decided to amputate her leg right above her knee. A day before the operation, I took a day off from work to keep her company.

Strangely, her mind seemed to be clear that day. She told me stories of her life when she was young. She spoke of friends from a long time ago and could remember their names. She said those friends had visited the night before. But I knew she was just imagining things as the friends she spoke of were long dead.

Mother never recovered from the operation. She went into a coma and died a few weeks later.

It seems to me people with dementia can recall events from a long time ago but they cannot remember if they had their breakfast. They also tend to be paranoid of everyone around them and would claim that someone is poisoning their food or stealing their money.

I just want to share my experiences so that you would know if someone you love has dementia and take precautions accordingly. One lesson I learnt though: It is much better to show your love and spend time with your parents before it’s too late. Too late would be when the dementia is at an advanced stage.