Saahir Ganti-Agrawal

Your life for the past three months:

“I need to go to the bathroom.  Where is the bathroom?” Your dadi [grandma] asks.

“This way. Come on, go in, come on, go in, come on, go in,” you say, as you nudge her through the door.

Tip #1: Be chill, or at least pretend to be chill.  The only effective way to get Dadi to actually do what you tell her is if you stay calm and somewhat pleasant; if you shout, she just gets flustered and shuts down.  This probably applies to coercing people in general, beyond good ol’ Shakuntala.

“I… I don’t understand anything. I can’t do this,” she repeats.

“Don’t worry about it.  Walk straight, keep going.  Keep going. Keep going.  That’s it, now turn, turn, turn, turn, okay now grab the handle, and sit, sit, sit.”  You maneuver her body in the hopes that it will help her move in the right direction.

Tip #2: Roll with it.  When dealing with my grandmother, you experience the somewhat paradoxical nature of dementia; her life is incredibly repetitive and routine, yet she makes it unpredictable nonetheless.  So if she says she can’t figure out how to sit on the toilet, you just have to keep coercing her.  But don’t be aggressive about it, because remember, that doesn’t work.

Some days she is in better shape (mentally).  You close the bathroom door, leaving it open enough so that you can keep an eye on her, and eighty-four years of muscle memory lead her to the toilet seat.  Other days are more difficult, and she needs you to give her specific directions— showing her how to move towards the toilet seat, position herself, and sit down.  On the worst days, she complains, “I can’t do this. This is too hard.  I don’t understand anything.”  Sometimes, it takes a full five minutes to go from standing by the bathroom door, to sitting on the toilet.

Tip #3: Act like a parent.  You’re gonna have to do things that you don’t feel great about, like pulling down her underwear if she can’t figure that out, and instructing her on how to wipe her butt.   It’s good practice for the future!  Luckily, your dad gives her a shower and cleans her properly so you don’t have to worry too much about UTIs and stuff like that.  You should feel proud for learning parenting skills way before being a parent enters the picture.  You’re such an adult!

Your father carries the brunt of the grandmother-management, but during these first three months of the pandemic, you watch her quite a bit, before and after classes, when your father is on a work call, and in general when you see her meandering about.

Tip #4: Pay attention to your surroundings. As you glance away from your laptop, there she is, looking for the bathroom.  It’s time to get up and make sure she makes it to the pot.  This constant vigilance makes you either slightly neurotic or slightly more parental.  After all, you’ve got an eighty-four-year-old toddler to keep an eye on.  The evil eighty-fours are like the terrible twos, but with less energy and more vocabulary.

Three months pass, and she is moved to an assisted living facility’s dementia unit, where (incredibly commendable) workers manage her and others like her for their full-time job.  But you still feel the shadow of her presence, most strongly in her bathroom, the place imbued with your most emblematic memories of her dementia, her struggles, and your angst as well.

When asked about the inspiration for this piece, Saahir said, “This work is a reflection on one of the most impactful experiences I had during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. I was inspired to write about this experience of taking care of my grandmother, in order to express my emotions and document this time in my life. I’ve never been able to consistently write in a journal, so I thought this was a unique way of capturing an important moment in my life and share it with others in a way that I hope is compelling and entertaining.”