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Memory lost, not dignity

When traffic constable Sanjay Das forgot to salute the governor one day, a colleague who had noticed strange changes in Das’s behaviour stood up for him.

Das was diagnosed with dementia, a degenerative brain disease leading to forgetfulness and memory loss. It had all begun with Das, a stickler for duty, turning up late for work or even staying away.

As the first World Alzheimer’s Month is observed this September with the theme, Dementia: Living Together, the Calcutta chapter of Alzheimer’s and Related Disorders Society of India (ARDSI) is working towards building dementia-friendly communities.

When Das’s seniors learnt about his condition, they gave him a desk job so that he could continue working with dignity.

Some time after Das’s colleague had saved him from disciplinary action for insubordination by saying he had not been feeling well, Das went missing.

“He had wandered off to Baranagar and spent an entire night in a tea stall, where a taxi driver befriended him and took his mobile to give me a call,” said Das’s wife.

Nilanjana Maulik of the Alzheimer’s society predicts that Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and such other degenerative conditions are likely to assume epidemic proportions by 2026 with a 154 per cent increase in the incidence of the disease in Bengal and demographic changes across the country.

“The number of elderly people will be on the rise as life expectancy increases and dementia is an old-age disease,” Maulik said.

According to a 2006 study by professor S.K. Das, 48,000 people in the age group of 50 to 60 were afflicted with dementia in Calcutta. The figure has only risen exponentially every year. In 2011, 244.7 persons in every 1,000 people had dementia-related diseases in the state.

Customers at a pharmacy in Bijoynagar one day were surprised when an unshaven gentleman with a mop of salt and pepper hair walked in and asked for rosogollas. They were even more surprised at the reaction of the man at the counter.

“He lives nearby and I get him rosogollas everyday from the sweetmeat shop as he cannot walk that far,” the shopkeeper said as he handed over a packet to the man.

The pharmacist later explained to the customers that the man, Sumanta Datta, was suffering from dementia. “He often comes to my shop by mistake and asks for sweets. I pretend nothing is amiss because if we scold him or make him feel awkward, he will lose his self- esteem and dignity, the worst that can happen to such a patient.”

Explaining the reason behind the shopkeeper’s sensitive handling of Datta, diagnosed with fronto temporal dementia that leads to personality and behavioural changes, Maulik said: “We had a trained carer accompany him wherever he went. The carer then alerted people around him about his condition and how he should be treated without discrimination.”

Not all patients of dementia, however, are as fortunate. A 51-year-old man working with a private firm was forced to seek voluntary retirement after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

The onset of the disease was marked by frequent errors at work.

“He came to our centre with his daughter and admitted that he had been forgetting things and thus making mistakes. But he said ‘I am fit and can work. Can’t people excuse my errors so that I can continue working?’” said Maulik.

His colleagues and his boss, however, remained unmoved even when told about his condition. “I cannot suffer losses because of him,” argued his senior.

“We need to build awareness not just among individuals but corporates, employers, schools and colleges, everywhere,” said Maulik.