Remembering to Love Those Who Forget – Dementia Stories from Kenya

Imagine dying because you forgot to breathe. Joel Kasimu was a policeman, an Officer Commanding Police Station (OCS). His wife, Rose Wambui , described him as a patriotic man who lived to serve Kenya, “He was so proud of his job, how he would get up, dress and prepare for work in his uniform,” she explains, lifting her chin to mimic his posture and recalling how the 6-foot-tall man stood akimbo in his uniform, ready to leave home and serve the nation. Having suffered from diabetes, he reluctantly went on early retirement in 1985 on medical grounds at around the age of 55. Mr. Kasimu did not know his exact age. It was the time when you started school once you could touch your left ear with your right hand by passing it over your head.

A couple of years after his retirement, in 1989, Joel’s eldest daughter from his first marriage died of cancer. His first wife had also died years back and that was when he married Rose. In a short span of time Joel had lost both his work and a daughter. Elizabeth Mutunga, his first daughter from the second marriage, described the conspicuous changes that led the family on a 17 year journey of turmoil in the home. Changes that left them perplexed at to what was really happening. “First, he moved us from a four bedroom maisonette into an iron-sheet building round the corner. Then he sold his car, but first he sold the tyres then the body.” With time, things got worse. Mr. Kasimu would want to go to church on a Tuesday. When the family told him they would go on Sunday as they always did, he would get agitated and restless. He was a knowledgeable man, who served his country as an OCS, how could they patronise him in that way?

When Elizabeth finished high school in 1992, she took up her first job as a laundry operator at the Nairobi Safari Club, for a salary of 5,000 Kenya Shillings. With the changes in the home, this enabled her to support the family. “Dad beat me until he broke my arm,” she shares, maintaining eye contact, not letting her head drop at this painful memory. Joel thought Elizabeth was interfering with his ability to take care of his home as the head of the family. The reasonable, well weighed father was gone and in his place was a man trapped in his long-term memory whilst losing his sense of the immediate world around him – this terrified him as much as it did his family.

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