Voice lessons

With tears in her eyes, she told me that her mother could no longer carry on a conversation – she could still talk, but not comprehend what was being said to her. She told me that all she can do now is listen as her mother rambles on and on. I remember when my Mama was at that stage of dementia. My heart breaks for those who go through this. There is no right way and it is never easy.

I gave my friend some advice that I have been finding myself saying over and over: If it is at all possible, record your loved one’s voice while you still have the opportunity.finishing_well_in_life_record

As discouraging as it might seem to no longer be able to have a meaningful discussion or even simply chat about this and that, it is even more daunting to wish you could hear a single word. Mama, who  is at the final stage of dementia, has been silent for over a year now.  I would love to hear her voice again.

This is not simply advice for loved ones with dementia as other illnesses also take them away sooner than we want. A friend of my told of the bittersweet time she had while her mother spent her last days on earth. One of the sweet things she took away from that time was a recording from her mom. Anytime she wants or needs to, she can listen to that recording and remember.

I got to thinking about words. Words are great. Words hold so much power—so much potential for both good and evil. Kind words are gifts we can give each other; to our spouses, family, and friends.

If someone had told me that it would be a good idea to record my Mama’s voice while she still had speech, I might have. I’d like to think I would have, but it’s hard to say when looking back what you might or might not have done. Even though I didn’t, I still have hope that I will come across and old VHS or cassette tape that she is on.

I wish I had a recording of Mama’s voice from the days when she could still talk. But though I don’t have her voice, I still have her and I give her the gift of hearing my voice as often as I am able.

Note: Most phones come with a voice recorder app, but in case you don’t have one, try Voice Recorder by Green Apple Studio – it’s a free app and works on either an iPhone or an Android.

Allen Barker marches to a different drum

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Allen Barker signs his book, “The Billy The Kid Quiz”

I thought I was going to interview a drummer. I’d gotten a tip from a friend whose band plays oldies for several of the care homes in the area. He said there was a resident at Brookdale who is over 100 years old and when they visit there to play, he brings out a drum set and joins them.  I was intrigued, so I made arrangements to meet with this centenarian drummer.

As soon as I met Allen Barker, I knew it was going to be an interesting visit. His spacious suite is filled with photos, books, and of course, the drum set. I settled in to begin asking my standard questions beginning with “How old are you?”

He replied, “One hundred and one and one-half years old.”

When you are over one hundred, it makes sense to count the months as well. From there he began talking, and I took notes furiously while he spoke.

During our conversation, I learned that he was more than a drummer – much more. I discovered he had quite a heritage and history. Way back in the 1800s his great-grandparents were forced to migrate to an area in present-day Oklahoma in a journey called the “Trail of Tears”.

Born in 1914 in Evansville, Arkansas, his family moved to New Mexico where he spent his formative years.  Allen began taking violin lessons as a young lad. With a twinkle in his eye, he said that the ability to play the violin got him into most dance halls for free.

After a couple of stints in the army involving both horses and ships, he earned his B.A Degree in Language Arts from Eastern New Mexico University,  and a Master’s Degree in Earth Science from East Texas State.

Living all over the South West, his jobs were as diverse as the places he lived; teaching, geology, mine surveying, and even one profession I had never heard of before: Gandy dancing.

According to Wikipedia :

Gandy dancer is a slang term used for early railroad workers who laid and maintained railroad tracks in the years before the work was done by machines. Since the work needed to be done in a coordinated effort, they would sing songs to keep the rhythm while they worked. To an onlooker, it appeared they were dancing.

With a smile, he told me how he would hop a train and ride it until it came to a job site and then he would simply ask the foreman of the crew for work. He enjoyed it – the work was hard, but the pay was good.

Besides being musical, his talent for writing opened many doors as well. He has contributed to newspapers and magazines such as ‘True West’, and worked as a reporter for ‘All That Jazz’. However, his main writing interest centered on the renowned resident of the Southwest, ‘Billy The Kid’. Allen is a wealth of information and he has written three books on the legendary outlaw. His expertise developed over time as he lived in every Southwestern community the Kid did, from Silver City to the Texas Panhandle.

Allen is still married to Lillian, the love of his life, whom he married in 1943. Drumming, it turns was more of an afterthought when he found he didn’t have the dexterity for the violin, but had plenty of rhythm.

When I asked Allen about what he attributed his long life to, he gave me another one of his famous smiles and responded:

“I have lived this long, not due to making good choices, but rather making interesting choices – but then they turned out to be good.”



Has your world been touched by dementia? My recent book, “Finishing Well: Finding Joy in the Journey”, is a collection of stories and finishingwell-3Dcovertips about doing life with my Mama. May it encourage and inspire you to find the joy in your own, unique journey.

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Memories and memorials

You really can go home again. In fact, according to a recent article,  it is good for the memory. Of course, the saying “You can’t go home again” has more to do with wanting things to be exactly as they were in the past. That is a different issue. The article touched on a variety of ways to help the memories of the present by experiencing places, faces and the smells of the past.finishing_well_in_life_map

We were able to experience some of the joy of reminiscences on a recent trip we took to visit the area where my husband spent a great deal of his childhood. One of his dear cousins passed away, and we traveled up to the state of Washington for the memorial. While there, we did some driving around to see some his childhood houses and haunts.

One place in particular was a wonderful meat store called “Farmer George Meats”  in Port Orchard – by the way, if you ever find yourself in the region, make sure you stop by Farmer George Meats and pick up some of the finest jerky or beef sticks on the planet. Not only was the visual of seeing the shop wonderful, but the smell of the ‘smokes and spices‘ used to prepare the meat triggered a cacophony of wonderful memories.

When we were first married, Wayne was stationed at Fort Lewis near Tacoma, so while we were there, we also checked out the places we lived at that time. Though we noticed the differences, we appreciated the parts that were the same.

The memorial itself, with all the various family and friends, evoked powerful associations and memories.  There is something inherently satisfying about making those types of connections.

To make a delightful trip (though for a sad reason) more enjoyable, we were able to stop in Portland for a short visit with one of my cousins. The visit was lovely as we were able to catch up on family news. As an unexpected bonus, the sound of my cousin’s voice (with her charming Wisconsin accent) produced powerful reminders of the sounds of speech I heard as a child back in the Great Lakes area.

Our oldest son is getting to enjoy, to a degree some of the joys of returning to visit his hometown, as he has been able to come out to California for a rare vacation. He has been able to see the familiar faces and places from his childhood.

As Glenn E. Smith, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist at the Mayo Clinic, in an article on the clinic’s website says, By gathering memories, you can bring important events and experiences from your loved one’s past into the present. You’re the link to his or her life history.

So, whether physically, or virtually, try to take a trip or two down memory lane to enjoy a journey of a lifetime.