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Radhika Dhingra, 93, has her son and daughter-in-law to look after her, but their own advancing ages makes it a challenge. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Radhika Dhingra, 93, has her son and daughter-in-law to look after her, but their own advancing ages makes it a challenge. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Moderate Dementia

Radhika Dhingra: Lost in translation Add to ...

One morning in the bathtub, his mother yelled, "Hot! Hot! Hot!" in broken English, harshly scolding the latest support worker, an earnest and friendly Bosnian immigrant who, Shan says, was trying her best to be helpful. "Are you a numbskull?" Radhika scolded, reverting back to Hindi. "You aren't listening to me!"

"She didn't understand," Shan says. "Was my mother saying, 'The water is too hot,' or 'I need more hot water?' That's not safe." Instead of getting a break from his role as caregiver when the support workers came, Shan stood outside the bathroom door translating. (He also has to do this at each doctor's appointment, and every time she takes a memory test, which is in English.)

Finally this summer, he found Preeti through India Rainbow, a community group for South Asian seniors, and asked the CCAC to hire her for his mother. Preeti, who has a quiet, patient manner, won her over by knowing the words to an old Indian song that Radhika likes to sing. (She has no trouble remembering the words to long prayers and songs that she learned when she was a child.) Now, Radhika warmly calls her my "Beti," which means daughter, and Mary and Shan can leave the house when she arrives.

Twice a week, Radhika spends the day at India Rainbow, and on one Tuesday morning in late August, she sat grim-faced on a couch beside the program co-ordinator, Sarah Ivan, who started off by greeting the 15 seniors in a list of languages, including English, Punjabi and Hindi. Not everyone in the session had dementia; about half have medical conditions or mobility issues, others don't like staying home alone all day while their children work.

Before the group sessions began, one man was carefully colouring a picture of a giraffe torn from a child's colouring book, another flipped through a newspaper.

Ms. Ivan called for jokes. There was a chart on the wall with the heading Rainbow Idol, that awarded stars to participants for "making someone smile, telling a joke, taking a walk."

At the end of the month, the one with the most stars wins a certificate. (Radhika had collected three stars for each of the days she had come that month.)

There were varying levels of interest in the session - one woman had come prepared with a joke about a telephone repairman, while the chin of a man in a green turban had drooped to his chest.

Exercise class began with a round of laughter ("One. Two. Three. Ha, Ha, Ha.). They marched in their chairs and puffed up their cheeks, and pantomimed rowing with a swimming noodle. Radhika was coaxed into moving her feet by a staff member, but looked unimpressed. A parachute emerged and plastic beach balls were tossed on top; the residents were told to fling the edges of the parachute to bounce the balls. It's a game for kindergarteners, and the members of the group, even Radhika, were suddenly energized.

"If you don't hit the ceiling, no lunch!" Ms. Ivan told them, to laughter. Lunch is always a traditional vegetarian meal. On this day, it was split moong dal, a curry dish. Radhika sat eating in silence with two other women. Because she had seemed tired that morning, Shan and Mary were returning early to pick her up and take her home for a nap.

The three of them can go on this way for a while, but Radhika is slowly declining. Her topics for discussion are shrinking away "like the walls are closing in," Mary says. And Radhika revisits some of them - the story of her scouting trophy, the Muslim friend she had in school, the fictional McDonald's - so often that Shan can predict her next sentence. This summer, a daughter, now 72, visited from India, and Radhika refused to recognize her. "My daughter is young and beautiful," she insisted, and wouldn't let Shan's sister sit at her side.

Shan can usually coax his mom into a good mood by singing in Hindi. "You have to be innovative. Right now, the song is working."

But not forever. Shan and Mary, living in an apartment of boxes, with their own uncertain health, can't last.

One morning, Shan woke up to start the coffeemaker and then returned to bed, having forgotten to do so - a silly mistake, but in the back of his mind, he worries that maybe dementia is in his future. Leaving McDonald's, he and Mary work together, carefully wheeling Radhika out the door and over the curb, then holding her arm while she steps into the car.

Caring for his mother is a journey, Shan says, but worry lines his face.

"How am I going to give oxygen to anyone else, if I don't have oxygen for myself?"

See more from The Globe's Dementia: Confronting the Crisis series here

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