A few years I was booked by a memory care community to bring music and memory programs to the residents. I quickly learned which songs would generate the greatest response from the group, and also which songs resonated with individual participants. At one session a resident joined us but didn’t join in. She closed her eyes and I thought she was sleeping. I was playing Over the Rainbow, one of the group’s favorites and noticed that, still with her eyes closed, the resident was quietly singing along. And then she sat up, fully awake, and singing in full voice, encouraged by the praise of the staff. When the song ended, she closed her eyes again and rested her head on the arm of the chair for the remainder of the session. Staff said it was the first time they had seen her engage in this way.
I was thinking about that resident yesterday when I went to visit some friends in a (different) memory care community. An incredible and accomplished married couple, both are struggling with memory impairment, and in the wife’s case, with rapidly advancing Alzheimer’s. I met them both at an independent living community about 5 years ago and bonded with Mrs M. over our English origins. They attended every presentation I gave and though I could sense some decline in their health, it was still a shock to turn up one evening to find they had been moved to a memory care center. This was November 2021 and as hard as it was to see this change in their circumstance, and their distress over the move, I committed to visiting them weekly. It’s been a joy. I care for them both deeply and we’ve spent a lot of time together laughing, singing, eating chocolate, looking for lost phones, and making travel and life plans that will never happen.
Yesterday the weather was beautiful so Mrs M. and I sat outside on a bench in the little courtyard and admired the perfect blue and cloudless sky. Last year, when we sat outside on days like this we’d close our eyes and I’d tell Mrs M. to imagine a place she’d most like to be. Often we’d be on a beach, drinking wine, or in the English countryside, also drinking wine. I’d brought my little speaker and laptop outside so we could play some of our favourite music. I didn’t love being in Lenham Church Choir when I was a kid but I am so grateful that I learned so many hymns and that they’ve stayed with me. Mrs M. has always been deeply committed to her Christian faith, and while I don’t share those same beliefs, we do know many of the same hymns, and especially Carols – which are definitely not just for Christmas.
It was a lovely afternoon. We sang All Things Bright and Beautiful, I Vow to Thee My Country, Morning has Broken and of course Jerusalem which made us both a bit teary on the ‘On England’s green and pleasant land’ line. And then I put on Ave Maria, which I know is one of her favorites. She looked up at the sky and I could see tears welling up. and soon rolling down her cheeks. Neither of of us knew the lyrics, aside from the Ave Maria’s but it didn’t matter. When the music ended I gave her a hankie to wipe her tears and in true British fashion she said ‘sorry’ which made me laugh because it’s just what my mum would do too, and my laughing made her laugh and we were back.
Spending time with Mrs M. reminds me a lot of my mum, and especially of the changes that come as Alzheimer’s progressses. I’ve written before about my mum’s love of singalongs and the importance of music in those last 7 years of her life. But in the late stages, she wasn’t able to participate much. She had lost her ability to communicate verbally and anyone familiar with Alzheimer’s knows the jumble of words that replace conversation. And she was no longer able to register emotion through facial expressions which meant that she rarely smiled. But on occasions, music could still find a way through. On my very last visit home to see her, in 2019, the entertainer started playing ‘You are my Sunshine’, and it created a lovely moment. You can watch below.
I find it fascinating to think about the songs that will still resonate for me when I’m coming to the end of my life. Of course it’s going to be Queen – I can sing the lyrics to any Queen song from any album you choose. But if things go downhill for me, cognitively speaking, then I hope I could at least recall every track of Queen Greatest Hits. How about you?
Music is essential to life, it connects us to our emotions and when the conscious mind is compromised, music can still reach the subconscious. It’s hard to spend time in a memory care center that doesn’t recognize this, that doesn’t use music as therapy, or just as a way to bring moments of joy to residents. I wish things were different for my friends. This community is a long way from perfect and it’s upsetting to see the lack of investment, emotional and financial. But I will continue to spend my time there because being in the moment with these two is one of my favorite things to do.
I don’t know where Mrs M. went to yesterday when she looked up at the sky and closed her eyes and let the emotion well up, but it was an honour to be there with her.