Swami. All of her.
So I feel compelled to write about Swami. This little sprig of a 74 year old woman was once a powerful and famous yogi and founder of the retreat center at which I’m volunteering. Today she babbles in Hindi and an occasional English word, but let me start from the beginning.
When I came to Swamis Yoga Retreat, I knew that Swami was still alive and that she had Alzheimer’s. What I didn’t anticipate was my reaction.
I was timid. No, I was more than timid.
I saw people sitting with her and doting on her and I had no idea what to do or how to respond to a woman with full blown Alzheimer’s. And then my memories started bubbling up... You see my grandma died with a severe case of Alzheimer’s and the most poignant memory I have is from the last time I saw her. I went to the nursing home where she was living, and she didn’t know who I was. I lost it. I don’t think I ever went back to see her, and now here was a complete stranger, that I’m essentially living with in this intentional community, that is inflicted with the same disease. It would be different today grandma...
Her son is very clear that Swami will stay and live on the grounds for as long as possible. Every morning around 8am two nurses arrive and give her a bath and make sure she’s getting enough fluids, etc. They leave and the care continues given by the volunteers. The lead volunteer responsible for Swami is Sarah from the UK who has been here for almost a year and is a trained nurse, so the care and love is real. Swami lives in the retreat center she created surrounded by volunteers, and on a good day, she ventures out 100` and walks the grounds holding hands with one of her trusted guides. The guests whisper among themselves as she passes, and I wonder how many of them cross paths with someone with Alzheimer’s. Sarah places Swami on a chair at the front of various yoga classes for 10+ minutes to let Swami experience class in her own way. Swami babbles and points and moves as her short legs don’t touch the ground, and her feet sway under the chair. It’s good for her, and for us.
In the US we often take those with Alzheimer’s away from their homes and put them in the hands of professional strangers. I’m beginning to rethink how I would care for my parents...
The directions on the white board instructs us to greet Swami every time we enter her room, which is the volunteer gathering room so we are all in out and constantly. We are told to make sure she gets sips of water and that we touch her. It took me awhile of watching and feeling comfortable enough to make contact.
Was I scared? Uncomfortable? Uncertain? All of it in the beginning.
I now walk in and sit down next to Swami and take her hand and give her a kiss on her cheek. I tell her about the weather and my days work and she babbles (maybe in Hindi, I don’t know) and looks over my head and past my face though I know she is starting to recognize me as she will grab my hand and not let go. Last night her son Sanjay was here and they embraced. I watched her wrap her arms around him and put her face on his chest.
The Swami that he grew up with is still in there somewhere... and she is still teaching. All of us.