Shobna Gulati cared for her mother through her battle with dementia
Having spent a decade on the cobbles of Coronation Street, Shobna Gulati is known to most of us as Sunita, wife to slippery businessman Dev. Since being killed off in 2013 at the hands of her ex-lover Karl Munro, Shobna has made various TV appearances, including as a panellist on Loose Women and as a contestant in Celebrity MasterChef. Behind the scenes, however, she has been clawing her way through an excruciatingly painful time.
For years her mother, Asha, battled vascular dementia, a degenerative, debilitating illness that robs sufferers of their memories and cognition. We caught up with Shobna ahead of the release of her memoir, Remember Me, to discuss her journey.
“It’s been a long process,” she sighs. “I’d been writing for around 10 years before the idea to write about mum and her illness came to me. I always thought I’d write a novel because I didn’t want it to be too personal, but it turned into the most personal, revealing project I’ve ever undertaken. I feel a bit naked now it’s all said and done.”
Remember Me takes readers back to the beginning as Shobna details her experiences as a child, growing up alongside two older sisters with parents who desperately wanted a son.
“By the time I came along I think my parents were over the excitement of first steps and first words. There was also the overarching fact that I was yet another girl.”
That being said, her parents supported her in her pursuit of the arts and it’s clear she had a special relationship with each of them.
“I did everything I could do to be the apple of my dad’s eye,” says Shobna, who was 19 when her father died.
She drifted through life and relationships before marrying in 1990. However, they divorced in 1994 and Shobna became pregnant while living separately from her husband.
Shobna made a name for herself as Sunita in Coronation Street
“My brother and sister thought I brought shame on the family and I should be disowned,” she reveals. “But mum chose to stand by me when I had my son, Ashkay. She said it was her duty to look after me.
“I’ve made sure my relationship with him is open rather than closed,” she continues. “Through helping me raise him, mum grew into that openness with me. It was so beautiful because we hadn’t really had that in the past. The bond we shared and nurtured during that time became so special to me.”
Having provided Shobna with refuge, advice and love during her most challenging time, her mother became the actress’s rock. So, when the dementia set in and pieces began to fall away, Shobna struggled.
“It was hard,” she says plainly. “You lose yourself completely in the care. Everything I did became about mum. We had a family group chat called Team Mum where we arranged visits and shared updates on how she was. We were all involved in it, so the care was shared, but we had our own journeys and ways of handling things, which was difficult to say the least.”
“It’s never not been hard with my family. Annoyingly, I’ve always had to explain myself and my behaviours. When you’re in a big sibling group you tend to become the person you’re viewed as when you were little. Everyone seems to have their roles and mine was to be naughty and controversial.”
As if an undercurrent of family tension wasn’t enough, there was also the added component of shame and secrecy. With nothing but taboo and silence surrounding dementia in Hindu culture, the whole thing was kept quiet.
“We couldn’t name it,” says Shobna, now 54. “We could name the symptoms and her other health concerns. We could say, for example, that she was feeling breathless because of her heart and give her medication for that. But we couldn’t name the dementia.”
“Dementia was entirely incompatible with my mother’s world view and her place in it. Any kind of mental decline outside of ‘regular’ old age is a massive taboo in my community. The word dementia, when translated into her mother tongue, simply meant she was mad and that repulsed her.” And thus the silence was kept.
“We continued without naming it. It made everything that much harder, but we didn’t want to upset her. That’s the last thing you want to do when someone you love isn’t well.”
So how did she cope?
“It’s such a cruel disease,” Shobna stresses. “Things just slip away silently without you noticing them, no matter how much attention you pay. Each step along the way, as things become more lost, it feels like it’s all too late.”
“It’s easy to get embroiled in that and become completely absorbed by the practicalities of looking after someone. I reached a point where I realised it had to be about more than the medicines, the symptoms and the treatments. It had to be about what was happening in her mind and nurturing her as a person rather than just a patient.”
“Despite everything I lost throughout her illness, I feel like I gained so much. I gained my mum. It’s exactly as the book states – I discovered her as I lost her. When I look at it like that, it was a gift. A terrible gift, but a gift nonetheless.”
Shobna’s memoir which details her experience will be available on Thursday
In spite of all the conflict, heartache and sadness, it’s clear Shobna and her siblings managed to come together. “Big up to everyone on Team Mum,” she says.
“For all our sibling ridiculousness, and although we’re picking up the pieces now, we managed it. That’s a testament to the people my mum and dad raised us to be. We all wanted to do the right thing by her and we all tried our best to do that. I think that is to be celebrated.”
Her mother died at the end of last year, so how is she coping almost 12 months down the line? “There are different stages to grief (at least, that’s what all the books say). I think I started the process a long time ago because of the dementia. She’s less lost to me now,” says Shobna with quiet resolve.
“Every case is so different, but I have one piece of advice for anyone going through this. Don’t get lost in the chaos. You must take care of yourself. The support systems are there, so make the time to seek them out and get help.”
Shobna has also had Covid to contend with, having contracted the virus earlier this year. She says writing gave her a steady routine and her purpose, but it was a rough ride to say the least.
Shobna is still recovering from her fight with coronavirus
“I’ve not had much sense of taste or smell, which is worrying considering I’m due to appear on the celeb version of Britain’s Best Home Cook,” she says.
She will be taking part in the new BBC series, hosted by Claudia Winkleman and with judge Mary Berry, alongside comedian Ed Byrne and ex-rugby player Gareth Thomas.
But it’s clear she is feeling the effects of Covid way beyond the illness. “A tour I was booked for has been cancelled and the theatres aren’t showing many signs of life. I’m just proud I’ve finished this book and looking forward to cooking for people again, especially Mary Berry,” she adds.
Shobna’s memoir, Remember Me: Discovering My Mother As She Lost Her Memory (Cassell, £16.99), is out on Thursday.