Fading Ophelia

Journalist: Durna Safarova

Photographer: Nata Vahabova


A little over six years ago, doctors told Sabina Huseynova her mother had dementia.

“She began to forget some of the words in 2014-2015. One day she lost her favorite wallet at home. She forgot where she always put it. And then she began to often get upset about nothing,” Sabina recalls.

In 2016, things got worse: Once, Ophelia got lost when she was coming back from her sister’s house. She forgot where her own house was. 

The family reported her missing and the police eventually found her and brought her home. After that, Ophelia was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. 

Now Sabina, her brother, and their aunt take turn caring for her.

“My mom is calling me mom,” Sabina says.

Ophelia Guliyeva was born in Jabrayil, Azerbaijan in 1955. She fled her hometown in 1993, during the first Nagorno Karabakh War. 

Before she started to lose her memories, Ophelia often told her four children about her lost home. Today, however, she never mentions her childhood. “All her good memories of life were connected to her native district. Her biggest desire was to visit her father’s grave in Jabrayil. It was a pain in her heart,” Sabina says. 

“In October, when there was an announcement that Jabrayil was liberated, we were happy, screaming. But she was silent. I don’t know what she understood, what her feelings were, what it meant for her, but her eyes were smiling and sparkling.”

As Ophelia slowly slips away, her family questions how this happened to their mother—a woman so full of life and love that she once took in a homeless woman and let her stay for three years.

Sabina says that sometimes they wonder if the trauma Ophelia was forced to confront during her life led to the disease. “Our relatives have never been diagnosed with Alzheimer. According to the doctor, strong fears, stress and difficulties can also lead to memory loss,” she notes.

Ophelia was one of the hundreds of people trapped in the Baku subway station when a fire broke out between the stations Ulduz and Nariman Narimanov on October 28, 1995.

The fire killed 289 people and 270 people were injured, according to official figures. Ophelia and her son were both wounded in the fire.

Regardless of what caused Ophelia to develop dementia, today the family says her condition is worsening. 

Even with Ophelia’s pension—240 AZ or around $140—the family is struggling to meet her needs, especially the expensive medication she requires. They do not have enough money to take her to a clinic or pay for therapy, so members of the family care for her at home. They bathe her and give her medicine and take her for daily walks in Baku, where she lives now. 

“We talk to my mother about the past and often give her photographs to look at. Alzheimer's patients must be treated with love, care, and patience because they are like children. They need to feel a lot of love,” Sabina says.

Today, Ophelia has even lost the ability to talk. Sabina says she and other family members have become fluent at translating the emotion they see in Ophelia’s eyes.

“We understand by her smile in the eyes and her reaction whether she recognizes people or not. She seems happy when she sees her grandchildren. She knows me better: my mother thinks that I am her mother. She hugs me, she feels my love more, I think,” Sabina explains.

“I miss everything my mother used to have, especially for my mother's voice. I want her to speak to me at least once. I hope my mother feels my love in her heart.”

Ophelia burned her hands in an accident when she worked as a cook in a cafe. Sabina says her father ...
Ophelia burned her hands in an accident when she worked as a cook in a cafe. Sabina says her father loved Ophelia so much, when he saw her hands, he felt the pain himself.
Ophelia became a widow in 2005. Sabina recalls that her parents were very close, noting that when her father was alive, he always told Ophelia that ‘God should save you for me’.
“She loves pets. We used to have two rabbits, cats at home. We still have a cat. The cat literally feels her illness,” Sabina notes. “She goes and stretches next to my mom, or lays down on her chest. My mother pets her, looks at her with interest.”
“Before my mother lost her memory, I remember her as a very active, smiling, sincere, honest, straig ...
“Before my mother lost her memory, I remember her as a very active, smiling, sincere, honest, straightforward, and open-minded person.”

“My mother did not spend more time in front of the mirror before. But now, she looks at herself in the mirror, she stretches out her hand as if she wants to touch herself.”

“My mom always welcomed people into our home. Our door was never closed, because she welcomed everyone as a guest in our house. My mother loved having guests.”
“My mother loved to cook, we used to run home as soon as we got out of school to eat the food my mother cooked.”

“Most of all, my mother loves places where there are trees. She loves the “Beşmərtəbə” neighborhood of Baku, near Nizami metro station, where she used to live, and used to spend lots of years.”

“In her young years, my mother was a beautiful woman. My aunts remember how beautiful and tidy she was, her beautiful posture when she walked… She didn’t like makeup that much, but she was well-groomed.”

Ophelia loved guests and welcomed her neighbors and even complete strangers into her home. She once ...
Ophelia loved guests and welcomed her neighbors and even complete strangers into her home. She once took in a homeless woman and cared for her for three years.
“My mom liked to visit a mosque. She used to perform Namaz, she used to pray. When she started to forget things, she forgot the prayer, but she took ablution and just stood for Namaz, even though she could not say anything.”
A photograph of Ophelia as a young woman, together with her mother and brother. Sabina often shows her photographs from the family album in the hope that they can help stimulate her memories of the past.
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