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Palwinder: "Mum looked after us, and now it's my turn to look after her"

National Dementia Carers Day is on Sunday 11 September 2016. We talk to Carers UK member Palwinder, who looked after his dad for 12 years and continues to care for his mum who has dementia and other health issues.

Palwinder Bhamra 1

My parents married in the 1940s in India, and after living in East Africa for a while, moved to Maidenhead in 1964. It was hard at first, as mum didn’t speak the language. But she learned to write and speak English. Running a household meant a lot of physical labour for her, and on top of that she worked to make ends meet.

My parents were very well known in the community. My dad helped to set Up the first Sikh temple in Slough and he was a pioneer of integration. He really wanted to be part of the wider community. Our neighbours were very friendly – they would always take their hats off to us and say hello.

In 1974 mum and dad bought a grocery shop. Mum helped to run it while working at Black & Decker. I wanted to work in the family shop, but dad encouraged me to get an apprenticeship. I became a production engineer.  

Then in the 1980s there was a change. Dad fell ill and had four heart bypasses. I remember being with dad in hospital. It felt like a life and death situation, and that was something very new to us as a family.

They had retired by this point and I was living at home, looking after their day-to-day needs. Helping with shopping, driving, taking them on outings and to community events.

In 2004 my dad passed away. Before he passed, he said: ‘Look after your mum’.

A few years later, mum started showing signs of depression. I took her to the doctor’s, and she was diagnosed with dementia. This was a big shock. I had a wife and three children to look after, but knew I had to cherish dad’s last request. So I gave up my full-time career at Thames Valley University. Mum had looked after us, and now it was my turn to look after her. My wife was very supportive.

Palwinder Bhamra 3

In 2010 mum had a stroke and a hairline fracture in her pelvis was slow to heal. She began to need more help physically.

After her second stroke in 2014 her condition got much worse. Her left arm became inactive and she could only see out of one eye.

I look after her personal hygiene, nutrition, getting dressed. But caring for someone you love is way more than that. To me, mum is a smile, generosity, hard work and strength.

I try to let her do as much as she can for herself – such as supervising her while she washes herself, which is important for her self-esteem. I also oil her skin with almond oil – something she’s done her whole life and used to put on me and my children. The smell evokes a lot of memories for her.

I show mum photo albums, which help her remember the past – she will often kiss the photos. She enjoys feeding ducks and going to the supermarket – normal things that are part of her routine.

Palwinder 2

For a while I took her to India every year to see family in Punjab. We’re a big family, and she felt at home there.

In the back of her mind she’s always wondering where her husband is. I have to change the subject or distract her. She’s a great cook and food is important to us, so I’ll often distract her by taking her to the kitchen, and encouraging her to try and remember some of her great recipes to talk me through. That’s how I learned to cook. One day I am hoping to make my own vegetarian recipe book inspired by mum’s cooking.

Mum also loves classical Music and finds it soothing and relaxing. I often play the dilruba or harmonium for mum. I also sing with her and play religious hymns.

For me, caring is a role reversal – it feels a bit like nurturing a child. I have to have a lot of patience and let mum do things in her own time. Mum always thought about others. She always kept me safe, warm, clean – now it’s time for me to do the same for her. This is one of the core principles of the Sikh faith: to give back and help anyone in need.

When I found out I had won a National Carer Award this year, my first thought was that I’m only looking after my mum – people do far more than me. I was humbled to receive the award, and very grateful.

Palwinder Bhamra National Carer Awards

Carers UK has been great. I have to be mum’s voice, and they have given me excellent advice on Power of Attorney and the Care Act. Caring is a huge responsibility and I need expert help sometimes. That’s why I’m a member.

  • With thanks to photographer Mark Seymour, who took the photos of Palwinder with his mum and family. When Mark's father Ronnie was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease he documented the next four years, until his death. You can view his photos here.

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