My late husband’s dementia motivated us to finally travel to India

“Wait!” we all shouted in unison as my husband came dangerously close to falling out of the doorless SUV while swerving to avoid an oncoming truck. It was 2017 and we were on our way to a leopard safari in Rajasthan, on what we knew would be our last family holiday for all of us.

My husband, Atherton, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease two years ago, when he was 64 years old. Our marriage was based on a kind of adventurous travel that was driven by curiosity and interspersed with risk. He defined us as people and as a couple, so I felt I owed it to Atherton to continue traveling with him for as long as I could. We visited Myanmar, Mexico And BelizeBut I knew that this trip to India would be our last trip together.

Deborah and Atherton Gray
Deborah and Atherton Gray traveled widely (Photo: Deborah Gray)

Long before the diagnosis, we promised to take our adult children Katherine (36) and Alasdair (33) to India. We wanted to share our love for this country; Immerse yourself in its industry, tranquility, culture and history and watch them interact as the country stimulates all their senses at once. But it was my son, daughter and her husband Michael (36) who decided it was the eleventh hour; If we were going to do this, we had to go soon.

We planned meticulously. Several friends stayed at the Bresthouse Haveli in Jaipur, a simple but beautiful guest house built within a courtyard and with a secure door leading out to the street. Atherton had previously disappeared while on a trip to Sri Lanka I was keen not to have to engage in another police chase this time.

So after inquiring with George, the owner, we booked it for a week. We felt this would gently acclimate Atherton to Rajasthan before embarking on a bespoke tour of the Golden Triangle which we organized through Trailfinders. We had local guides in each city we visited, and after the train ride to Jodhpur, our own car and driver.

Deborah Gray, her husband Atherton, and her family in India, Judy Coogan
“If we wanted to do this, we had to go soon” (Photo: Deborah Gray)

The disease had robbed Atherton of spatial awareness and his world was so limited to his inner life that he had no sense of danger. For someone in this situation, India is busy Cities They were, on the face of it, ill-considered destinations. We weaved through crowds, took our chances on six-lane highways, and dodged rickshaws, cows, and mangy dogs. It took all four of us to keep it safe, but we caught glimpses of the old Atherton that had been locked away for ages.

Overstimulation from our surroundings caused him to fade in and out of our trip, but we experienced moments of joy as we watched him laugh at rickshaws, marvel at temple rituals and appreciate the magnificent architecture of the Taj Mahal. But at the same time, these moments of clarity were heartbreaking, and only underscored the loss of someone who was funny, insightful, and had an extraordinary curiosity for life.

Sometimes we felt like we were in a joke. My husband, like many people with Alzheimer’s, was a violinist and a night walker. This led to me finding myself locked in my bedroom. My only way to escape to the bathroom was to climb onto a chair and make my way through an interior window to emerge head first into a clump of strange plants in my pajamas. After I left the room, I couldn’t get back in and ended up sneaking around the strange layout of the guest house trying to break into our suite again.

The staff were great, keeping an eye on my husband without being intrusive. I felt that there was a gentleness in their psyche that enabled them to understand instinctively how to treat him with compassion without condescension.

My late husband’s dementia motivated us to finally travel to India
“It was a holiday filled with poignant moments and laughter and we created so many memories.” (Photo: Deborah Gray)

Nikhil, the manager, arranged for us to go on a number of day trips. On one such trip to the Rajasthan desert, the kids and I wanted to go on a sunset camel ride and the guide volunteered to take care of my husband for us. What could go wrong? We left him in a fort with the guide. Naturally, he managed to escape through a side door and was found wandering down the path.

Our experience in India was enhanced by the intimacy of the tour. Early in the morning, we were taken to one of the guides’ family farm, where we were greeted with flowers, drums and a bottle of whisky. Later, we met the ladies of the family, who prepared a home-cooked lunch for us: a fragrant lamb curry with a golden plate and a bowl of spiced vegetables and roti. We also stayed in the shadow of a lesser-known magical fort on the outskirts of Jaipur, not visited by other tours.

We were overwhelmed by the kindness we encountered. I’ll never forget the man in the jewelry store whose eyes welled up when he recognized the condition by the look in Atherton’s eyes. He told us his mother had dementia. Instinctively, the guide gently grabs Atherton’s arm or the waiter stands patiently waiting for a response.

It was a holiday filled with touching moments, laughter and we created so many memories. Atherton died at the age of 72 after three years in a nursing home. Looking at the pictures, I noticed how much I smiled. We are sure Atherton was happy to be with those who loved him so much and India revived him.

For advice and information about traveling with someone with dementia, visit Alzheimer’s Association website


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