Heart and Soul: When a loved one suffers from dementia

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Ever since my elderly parents moved to live in the city near me, any day can be rife with a crisis. One such day took place before Qing Ming.

Aiyo! Your Ma is driving me nuts. She’s crying incessantly for me to find someone to pray for her mother this Qing Ming in Ipoh! She can’t comprehend what a travel restriction during a pandemic is,” Pa wailed in exasperation over the phone.

Ma has dementia, and her obsession with performing the Qing Ming rites for her departed mother was her crisis du jour. Despite our explanation that Qing Ming prayer would be taken care of by the monks in the temple where our late Popo’s ashes were kept, Ma was unconvinced.

When Pa, her main caregiver, couldn’t cope, I drove over to see them.

When I arrived, Ma ambushed me with her anxiety-stricken look.

“Qing Ming season is coming! Who’s going to pray to my mother?” She pestered me to get some relatives to attend the prayer on her behalf.

But I told her that with the lockdown, the temple had barred visitors. I reminded her again that the residing monks would perform the prayers.

When that didn’t stop her from tormenting me with repeated queries, I lost my temper.

“Stop it, Ma! Popo died four decades ago! She probably reincarnated a long ago, too! Stop your nonsense, Ma!”

Instead of becoming quiet, Ma became livid and shot back at me.

“Who said Popo has reincarnated? She’s probably loitering outside our home like Madam Wang’s old mother.”

That was when Ma started to tell me with incredible lucidity this bizarre story of how Madam Wang’s dead mother visited her living daughter. Madam Wang is her friend in our hometown.

Madam Wang’s late mother’s death anniversary was last weekend. Her mother died more than six decades ago, after she committed suicide. Madam Wang was 10 years old when she lost her mother.

As it was pandemic time, she didn’t hold the memorial prayer at her grave site but at home. During the home prayer session, Madam Wang had a friend over who has the special ability to see the souls of the departed. She noticed a motherly apparition wearing a nyonya kebaya standing outside the house. Her description matched that of Madam Wang’s dead mother.

Ma was adamant, “Who said my mother’s soul has re-incarnated?! Even Madam Wang’s mother’s soul is still hanging around!”

I didn’t have time to argue with Ma. I just shrugged while Pa rolled his eyes at Ma. I made a mental note to update Ma’s geriatrician that her dementia was worsening and making her delusional.

During my drive home, I couldn’t stop thinking how lucid Ma appeared to me when relating her friend’s story, a rarity for Ma, who suffers from dementia. My Ma who frets about her inability to remember her own age or what she had eaten for lunch, could narrate her friend’s story so vividly. Since her diagnosis a year ago, I hadn’t seen her so vivid in her memory. Or has she been creative?

As I couldn’t shake off my suspicion, I decided to call Madam Wang to verify the story. I was half expecting Ma’s friend to laugh her head off and to rubbish the claim, as I had done earlier.

After exchanging pleasantries, I asked, “Aunty, is it true that your mother died when you were 10? Was last week really her 60th death anniversary and someone noticed her apparition outside your home? “

Ma’s friend was surprised to hear from me, more so knowing that my Ma had related the story with astonishing accuracy. She also lamented that Ma felt troubled that she couldn’t perform the Qing Ming rites due to the lockdown.

After I hung up, a deep sense of remorse hit me as I reflected on the numerous incidents where I had been callous in my treatment towards Ma’s memory. I had undermined her, to the extent of ridiculing her.

On hindsight, I need to remind myself that despite her cognitive impairment, she is still a person with emotions and could still miss her own mother.

The week that followed, Ma was still obsessed about performing the Qing Ming ritual for Popo. Instead of shushing her up, we held a simple memorial prayer from the living room of our apartment. We brought out Popo’s portrait, in front of which we placed an array of Popo’s favourite snacks, steamed cakes and fruits, and accompanied Ma to pray for her mother’s soul.

To complete the ritual, I gave Ma two shiny coins to flip to indicate if Popo’s soul had finished partaking of the food, just like how Ma used to do it before her brain was ravaged by dementia.

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Dementia , memory loss , ageing , elderly


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