There was something about her that distinguished her from the other inmates at the old people’s home in Dubai. Mama Rumaitha, as she is fondly called by her caretakers, has been a resident there for a couple of years. The signs of age conceal and confirm, at the same time, the hint of a once strong, regal, beautiful woman. Dressed immaculately in all white, a shawl wrapped around her head, she sits with a quiet dignity on her wheel-chair away from others. Like the majority of the dwellers at the elderly care centre, she suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.
The nurses informed us that she had been a school principal all her life. Her son is a resident doctor at the centre, so he placed her there to ensure her better care. As we talked, or tried to communicate with her, many thoughts crossed my mind and continued to linger long after the visit was over.
I imagined her as a strong person of authority she once must have been. She was not only responsible for her own decisions, but was responsible for thousands of children. How analytical and sharp her mind must have been, I wondered. Today, due to the progression of her disease – when the nerve cells in the brain degenerate resulting in impaired thinking, behavior, and memory – decisions are made for her.
I pictured her standing before hundreds of students every morning at assembly-time, making announcements to them. Today, she struggled to reply to our general questions. Her tongue, and perhaps her mind, didn’t support her. You could see her wrestle with herself. As if she was trapped in her restrictive body. Her eyes moistened (in helplessness I believe) tring to form words and realizing her futility.
They say eyes communicate more than words can. I tried to test that. Once blue-grey, the color of her eyes was cloudy with age now. There were brief moments when she stared at us like she knew us – perhaps mistaking us for her students or family. At other times, her eyes expressed the chaos inside – the result of her mind mixing memories of the distant past with the present. Still there were moments when she looked blank – as if there was nothing behind those eyes – offering dark-nothingness all the way through to the gazers.
But, between those moments of confusion, there was a fleeting second or two when those eyes shone with clarity and revealed the real her. Yes, the eyes spoke: “What you see in front of you is not me. This is not the person even I recognize. I was once a presence of vitality, control and intelligence. I am helpless, trapped and dependent today. But this is not me…”
We left when it was her feeding time, knowing well, that she would not recognize us again on a future visit.
Do we know where we are heading? Did Mama Rumaitha ever imagine herself in this state when she was young and active? Do we pride in our knowledge, intelligence or sharpness of mind? How much control do we have over our own mind and body? Who is the One with control?
” اللهم إني أعوذ بك من ابخل وأعوذ بك من الجبن ، وأعوذ بك من أن أرد إلى أرذل العمر ، وأعوذ بك من فتنة الدنيا وأعوذ بك من عذاب القبر “
“O Allah, I seek your protection from miserliness, I seek your protection from cowardice, and I seek your protection from being returned to feeble old age. And I seek your protection from the trials of this world and from the torment of the grave.” [Al-Bukhari, Fathul-Bari 6/35]
* Alzheimer’s disease – a degenerative condition of the mind – affects one in eight persons over 65 and nearly half of those over 85. A small percentage of people as young as their 30s and 40s also get the disease.