World Alzheimer's Day: Remembering An Evening Of Laughter And Forgetting

It was an evening that I will long remember. We talked and joked and laughed our way through drinks and a choice of wonderful appetizers (and later dinner) in her cozy home that I had always admired for its stunning display of art. We talked of many things—she, me and a friend of hers I had just met—our lives, our routines, our children. In between our laughter, she would keep coming back to the same incidents in her past over and over again, almost tormented by them. And ever so often she would punctuate our conversation with an, "And tell me who you are again, and how do I know you?" I was crushed.

Ever so often she would punctuate our conversation with an, "And tell me who you are again, and how do I know you?"

She was my first manager in a big pharma company, a mentor, a teacher, a guide but in that evening all the roles she played in my life (with the exception of a friend) were reversed. She was a person who ran what was probably in her time the best-run corporate public relations department in the country. She invested in so much intellectually stimulating activity—she taught PR at a leading communications institute in Mumbai and would later, on retirement, become its dean. She wrote columns and books. She made films. She browsed art galleries, attended plays and film festivals. We spent many wonderful hours together while I was in Mumbai and kept in touch even as I moved to Bangalore. And yet in many ways she had been reduced to nothingness – childlike, no notion of who she really was, questioning but not seeking answers as they meant nothing to her. She had, a year earlier, been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and slowly the illness was chipping away at the person she once was. Laughter that evening was the solace we all sought.

It was amazing how much I would remember later of our times together and what I had learnt from these experiences:

  • Of the patience and skill with which she taught me how to proofread typeset copies of our corporate newsletters, using what surely must have been American style guides. Lessons I would later pass on to my team members who, in turn, passed it on to those they mentored. And when they thanked me for instilling in them a sharp eye, I always said a silent prayer of thanks to her.
  • Of lessons on how to manage in the corporate world. It could not have been easy for her to be one of only a couple of senior managers in a very male dominated, hierarchical organization. But I watched her feistiness, her courage and her determination as she worked her way through corporate webs. And learnt my first lessons on how to survive in the corporate world.
  • Of how she introduced me, then in my young 20s and less than half her age, to the vibrant world of art and culture in Mumbai, a city new to me. Through her I met poets and artists, visited exhibitions I would never otherwise have seen, attended exclusive screenings of films and documentaries and learnt to appreciate the arts.
  • Of the lovely evenings spent at her home where she threw exquisite parties, carefully choosing her guests and serving the best of drinks and eats. Her home was a treasure trove of collectibles, an art lover's delight.
  • Of the many corporate trips we did together across the country, these trips at times marked with interesting stopovers like at Khurja on the way to Aligarh where we would often stop to buy ceramics of various kinds.
  • Of her passion for what she did, particularly her commitment to education and nurturing talent, something that I believe has been a lasting influence on me.

I wish I could instead ask her... remember me? And that we could go back down memory lane to times we shared together. Even if for one more time.

Of all this and so much more. How could it be that I could spend an evening with someone who there was so much to remember and reminisce about, and yet not having anything we could remember together? A very vibrant life was being lost to Alzheimer's.

Alzheimer's Disease International estimates over 9.9 million new cases of dementia each year worldwide, implying one new case every 3 seconds. There were over 46.8 million people worldwide living with dementia in 2015 and this number is expected to double every 20 years. The regional distribution of new dementia cases is 4.9 million (49% of the total) in Asia, 2.5 million (25%) in Europe, 1.7 million (18%) in the Americas, and 0.8 million (8%) in Africa.

I reflect on all of this... and the continuing quest to find new and more effective treatment for Alzheimer's, the only cause of death in the top 10 that cannot be prevented, cured or yet. And I reflect on Remember Me the theme for Alzheimer's Day which falls on 21 September. I wish I could instead ask her... remember me? And that we could go back down memory lane to times we shared together. Even if for one more time.

To Mrs Jane Swamy, my first manager...and teacher at Xavier Institute of Communications, Mumbai.

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