Alzheimer’s and Food

Amma used to say that she was forgetting where she had put things or forgetting to do things as she was getting old. She often made a joke about it, too. Little did I realize that this forgetfulness was a sign of something that would change her complete personality. It was not until that terrible day in November 2010 when she wandered off that it ever struck us that it could be Alzheimer’s disease. Among the ravages that Alzheimer’s has brought about in Amma, one thing is the change in what she liked to eat, a change in food preferences.

Amma arrived in Kolkata in the autumn of 1969 after her marriage, to a city that was completely new, to people and a language that was completely unfamiliar to her. I remember my father often telling us how after their wedding, when they settled down in North Kolkata in Fakir Ghosh lane, near Dunlop Bridge, Rani Mahalonobis, the wife of the famous statistician and the founder of the Indian Statistical Institute, Prashanta Chandra Mahalonobis, wanted to meet his bride. So, Amma went along with my father to the Institute, where Rani Mahalonobis lived. The very affectionate, old lady was pleased to meet her and gave her gifts of a tant saree and a big handi (earthern pot) of mishti doi (sweet curd). I remember Amma often saying that she never could understand how doi (curd), could be sweet and how one could relish eating it. She used to tell us that she took a spoon of it in her mouth and spat it out. For her, as to all south Indians, curd needs to be sour and to be had with rice, at the end of a meal. This story of the gift of mishti doi was one that Amma often told us with a look of distaste on her face. We grew up aware of Amma’s aversion to all things sweet. She was a true blue Telugu, loved her fiery pickles and all things sour. Now, mishti doi is her favourite dessert.

About three years ago, I noticed that whenever she had sour curd at the end of a meal, she cringed a little. The sourness was not something she seemed to like any more. We decided to add a little sugar to it and she loved it. That is how she has curd now, with spoons of sugar. The fondness for Andhra spicy and hot pickles too was slowly on the wane; she did not seem to enjoy them anymore. It was a problem finding out her likes and dislikes since Amma spoke very little, just a few monosyllables here and there. She never complained, just a facial expression, a grimace perhaps, or just pushing away the food offered was all the reaction that we got from her. Hence, it was our observations of how she behaved that determined or decided on changes that we would make for her so that she enjoyed her food. So, instead of spicy hot pickles it is the sweet pickles that she likes to have with her favourite idlis and dosas. Not just that, for someone who earlier did not relish Bengali cuisine as it was not hot (she liked her food to be), she now likes it. She loves dishes that have a little bit of sugar added to it. A vegetable she detested was the pumpkin; it is her favourite now.

Amma’s mornings began with a piping hot cup of filter coffee, with very little milk and sugar. She liked to have it piping hot and strong. She continued to like it for a couple of years after her diagnosis with Alzheimer’s. Then, we noticed a perceptible dislike, so we made a few changes, made it sweeter and with more milk. Slowly, the distaste increased and Amma stopped having coffee. One winter my nephew was visiting us and he liked having Bournvita added to his cup of milk. We decided to see how Amma would react to having milk and Bournvita. She just loved it. So, that is how her morning begins, with a cup of Bournvita and cream biscuits. Living in Calcutta had made her enjoy a cup of tea in the afternoons; she no longer enjoys it and prefers the milk drink.

In spite of the fact that she came from a state that had a bountiful mango crop and varieties of the fruit, Amma hated ripe mangoes. She couldn’t stand its smell. We always spoke of it. A few years into Alzheimer’s, after I noticed her preference for all things sweet, I decided to give a piece of the fruit to see how she likes it. She just loved it. My aunts, her sisters, my sister, and all my cousins on my maternal side were unable to believe Amma’s love for the fruit. I can almost visualize the look of amusement this would have brought on my father’s face had he been around.

Well, that is how things are these days. Alzheimer’s has wrought great changes in Amma, and the change in food preference is a noticeable one. Amma loves anything sweet these days. Like a true Bengali, sweets are her favourite and she has mishti every day. She always loved chocolate, pastries, ice cream and cakes; she still does now. Sometimes it is difficult getting her to eat, but any of her favourite food makes things easy for the carer.

There are times when she keeps food in her mouth, does not chew and swallow. It takes an immense amount of coaxing to make her do it. She takes a bite of her favourite mishti, holds it in her hand, gazes here and there – she has forgotten about it. One needs to direct her attention, her gaze to it in her hand, direct her hand to her mouth to make her eat it. Sometimes she just puts it on her dress, sometimes throws it away, sometimes looks at the thing in her hand, gazes, and keeps it back in the plate. The wandering mind leads her to do things we do not understand. We observe, watch, and try to see what could possibly work.

Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha wrote this for Cafe Dissensus. She is Associate Professor, Department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College, Kolkata. She is an academic with varied interests and writes on travel, too. Twitter: @nishipulu

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