I HAVE been writing a fair bit on caregiving for the elderly, especially those who suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. It’s all from experience and from friends sharing theirs. What a good thing that was! It certainly came in handy on my recent trip.
I was on a plane ride home from Perth, Australia, last month when I found myself seated next to an elderly couple, whom I shall call Mr and Mrs A. I always book the aisle seat regardless of the length of the journey. As I approached my seat, Mrs A was sitting there, with her husband in the centre seat. I was sure that the seat was mine and that they just needed to scoot in.
The stewardess checked and confirmed. They shuffled in. Mr A got the window seat while his wife sat in the middle. They were both rather fidgety with their hand luggage. I offered to stash Mr A’s old-fashioned briefcase in the overhead compartment so that he’d have more room. He agreed gratefully and thanked me for helping him. We all then settled down for take-off.
They both started making small talk and exchanged pleasantries, which was quite normal. “Where are you from? Where is your final destination?” Mrs A loved the blouse I was wearing and even touched the sleeve to feel the fabric.
Then she asked me more questions about Malaysia. After I answered, she told me that she had lived in Penang. I started to ask her the same questions too but she couldn’t tell me where she was going and for how long. Just then, the stewardess handed out the earphones, followed by our meals. I helped Mrs A with her choice of chicken, fish or vegetarian (she chose chicken), and passed the tray down. It’s all a normal part of being a passenger seated in the aisle seat.
After the meal, I couldn’t immediately go to sleep, so I chose to watch a movie instead. Mrs A wanted to do the same. As I was about to help her with her earphones, she rang the stewardess and asked for another set of earphones, and if she could take them home with her after the flight.
When she told her husband she wanted to watch a movie, he told her there was nothing worth watching and returned to reading his book. So she turned to me and asked me for help. She was excited about watching the King Arthur movie.
While I was watching my movie, she tapped my arm every now and then to show me the headlines of the newspaper she was reading, while watching the movie. And then she would turn to her husband to read the headlines out loud. When she had read them all correctly, she would clap her hands in glee. That reminded me of my children when they were 2 years old. It was such a happy gesture.
When she started to repeat the same questions that she had asked an hour earlier about half a dozen times and told me she was hungry and had not eaten (just 10 minutes after the stewardess had cleared our empty trays), I realised that she wasn’t an ordinary fellow passenger. Up went the warning flags. I’ve seen this before.
They both needed to go to the toilet quite often, so there flew any plans I had for sleeping on this trip. I had to stand up to let them out and then in again.
Mrs A kept on playing with the light switch (including mine) and the call bell, asking for water. I was coming back to my seat from the loo and she held up a glass of water to show me that there was something floating inside.
“Look!” she said. “There’s something in my glass!” Then she promptly poured it on my seat and said, “Oops!” And giggled.
I was shocked and aghast but quickly grabbed some tissues to wipe the seat. Thank goodness it was a leather seat and the water dried up quickly. Mr A apologised and offered his blanket to cover my chair.
“I’m very sorry, my dear, but my wife has Alzheimer’s,” he said.
By that time, four hours had passed. It was a six-hour flight. No other aisle seat was available as it was a fairly full flight. I was stuck to my seat with no other option or means to escape.
By that time, I was really tired. I had had an exhausting and challenging two weeks prior to this flight, and didn’t anticipate anything like this. Talkative neighbour? Maybe. But usually people just did their own thing quietly.
I wanted to cry and felt a bit sorry for myself for being caught in such circumstances. But I felt like crying more for Mrs A who was slowly losing her mind and Mr A who was quite resigned to dealing with this.
I couldn’t find it in me to get angry with them because I’m sure no one asks to have dementia. And no one asks to be a caregiver for someone with dementia. I just wished my aisle seat was in a different row.
Putri Juneita Johari volunteers for the Special Children Society of Ampang. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org