Transition: Learning, Unlearning and Relearning

A personal experience in caring for the elderly

Dr. Rajashree K C, Thrissur

Encounters in continuum…

Mother (left) with her older sister [2020]

Mom: “Why didn’t you tell me that”?

I drew my gaze from the WhatsApp chats to my mother. She was staring at me in a rather displeasing manner.

Me: “What”?

Mom: “That Suraj is coming in September”

Me: “I did.. don’t you remember? the day before yesterday while we were talking”?

Mom: “You said he might come, but not exactly when. Today, Gopal told me. Otherwise I wouldn’t have known. Nowadays you hardly tell me anything”.

She was critical in her tone.

I got annoyed, as I was pretty sure that I had told her. I tried to defend myself by saying when and how I had spoken to her on this matter.

Me: “I know that you have forgotten”.

I was assertive than usual.

She remained silent, and then sighed. “Could be. I have become old, everyone will become old one day”, she whispered.

“Yes, that is true”. I smiled and went back to my chats on WhatsApp.

This conversation ended there, but similar conversations recurred over the following days in varied settings. We continued to engage in a tug of war during each of these settings between ‘forgetfulness’, ‘effort on conviction’ and ‘conflict resolution’. While wondering why my mother’s behaviour had changed over years, I realized that she had gotten argumentative and deprecatory in instances which appeared to be silly to others.

My memories transported me back to the seventies, the eighties and the nineties. My mother had been an efficient homemaker, an excellent cook and an affectionate mother. She, along with my father, had stood beside me rock solid, through thick and thin. She had been a careful and a loving grandmother, for my son Suraj too, while I was away for higher studies.

She has now become frail.

My mother (center) with her sisters [1970]
My family [1971]

Her efficiency and perfection have started to vanish. Her memory is now fading. Her joints which once upon a time sped her up, is now responsible for her to slow down. Her perfect vision and hearing have now started to sing their retiring notes. Her grace has given way to wrinkles. Once a voracious reader and a movie fan, she is now reluctant to even read the newspapers or watch TV programs except for a few select Malayalam serials.

It is true that she has become old; both chronologically and functionally. Though sad, I affirmed and accepted it.

“Could you confirm with Suraj whether his plans are final”? She asked me the other day.

I said “Yes, I will”, and began searching for Suraj’s number from my phone’s contact list.

“His number is……….”, she said as she helped me with his ten digit mobile number without any reference! “Don’t you remember that”? She asked with mischievous smile!

I was dumbstruck and had no answer. I was however, pleasantly surprised as I pondered ‘How could she?!’

What exactly is age related memory decline?

Is it my inadequacy in understanding the ageing process?

A thousand questions began to bombard my mind as I searched for clues to find the answer!

After a few days, I noticed that she had messed up her medications and had taken double doses of some medications. I got upset and asked her “Why didn’t you follow the instructions written on the envelopes?” My mother glanced at me very calmly and said, “I didn’t follow the instructions because the instructions are not clear as the envelopes are old”. I felt miserable as I realized that it was my mistake. I had completely overlooked the fact, that she would find it difficult to read the instructions on worn out envelopes. I immediately put them in three different boxes, morning, noon and night, so that she would not get confused with the timings henceforth.

The very next evening I saw her sitting with a blank face and a vacant stare, as if she was lost somewhere unfamiliar.

‘Was my mom losing the grip?’ The very thought scared and chocked me.

The Palliative Care Physician within me sarcastically prodded me ‘Can’t you do something to make her more comfortable?’

I then realized that the answers were right there as a ready reckoner, and that I had to only flip the pages!

  • The Ageist attitude must be wiped off. Older people have the wisdom earned from their life experiences and are good at many things
  • Emotional outbursts and behavioural changes are the new normals
  • There is no gain or benefit in trying to convince them with your views and opinions
  • Conflicts must be tackled gently
  • It is surprising that they remember the past experiences and events, while forgetting the recent ones!
  • There is no substitute for anyone. Every person is unique

Tail Piece!

As I entered home yesterday, I noticed that a pleasant and appetizing aroma was emanating from the kitchen. I knew that our home help, Jayanthi, had left for the day; so I guessed that it must be mom making something.

As I walked towards the kitchen I said “Mom, what are you doing now? Didn’t Jayanthi cook dinner?”.

Her response, “Yes, of course she made dinner! This idlyupma is for you, you like it very much right? There is Sambar too.”

I stood there without uttering a word. I knew that my eyes had welled up with tears.

“Mom, even after all these years, you DID remember that I like this dish”, I said silently as I walked to my room upstairs.

I smiled to myself when I suddenly remembered that I had to present a session tomorrow on ‘Care of elderly’ for the IAPC’s CCEPC course.

About the Author: Dr. Rajashree K C, is a Faculty at the Institute of Palliative Care, Thrissur, Kerala and a visiting Consultant at Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences, Kochi, Kerala. (

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