Tag Archives: music

The Magic of Music in Memories

Music is an amazing elixir. We discovered that truth when our world began to change as we embarked on our journey of dementia with Mama. Her forgetfulness of ‘people, places and things’ grew to encompass all but the most familiar at an alarming rate. Personal routines broke down. Meals were forgotten, and longtime friends became strangers. I remember when I also became a stranger to her.

Sheet music and roses CC0 Public Domain
Sheet music and roses CC0 Public Domain

As memories fell away, we tried to focus on what remained.  Music endured. Wonderfully, music was the one constant. Mama had songs from a lifetime of singing. It was always a big part of our lives; in fact, I cannot remember any time growing up when Mama didn’t sing. It seemed she was always singing, especially in the car. We did a lot of summer road trips as a child, primarily from California to Michigan where my grandparents lived. On those long drives, we would sing, sing, sing. My parents had a wide musical interest which ran from popular songs of the day to Broadway musi­cals, and old southern songs such as “O Susanna,” and “On Top of Old Smokey”. We also had patriotic, silly and church songs, of which included, “God Bless America,” “Mairzy Doats,” “Playmate, Come out and Play With Me,” “Amazing Grace,” and the “Doxology.”

Music immersion

As time went on, we pursued as many opportunities for Mama to be immersed in music as possible. We played CDs of her favorite hymns, we watched musicals on TV, and even attended concerts held at a local theatre. One evening we enjoyed a fun ‘Banjo and Piano‘ band that played songs from the 1930s-40s. About halfway through, they played “You are my Sunshine” – she surprised us by singing along with the band!

While time moved forward, Mama continued to decline. Her ability to carry on conversations faltered, stuttered, and finally stopped, but to our delight, her singing ability remained. We learned that songs are an integral part of human experience. No matter how much of the thought process a loved one loses, music resides in the soul. As the disease progressed, it began to take more effort – more ‘priming the pump’ to get Mama to sing with me – I would sing the first verse of a song over and over to her. If I was persistent, she would eventually join me. One of her favorites of all time was, “My Wild Irish Rose”.

Helpful notes

The power of music to trigger memories is well documented in studies and by organizations such as Music and Memory . Singing with a loved one is a won­derful way to stay connected. Most folks have a song or two tucked away in their memory. A song some­one learned when they were eight will still re­main with them when they are 80.

If you are not sure what music your loved one would connect with, there is a website, Music Memories that has snippets of songs from several decades beginning with the 1920s. Choose a decade and play through the snippets until you develop a playlist that your loved one seems to connect with. Then you can go to YouTube, iTunes, or some other music source for the entire song. Unless I knew the song and could sing it with Mama, she used headphones to help her to enjoy the music. It is an amazing thing to watch the light of memories flash and sparkle in someone’s eyes – almost like magic.

Whimsical joy helps us finish well

While engaging in a lovely chat with a friend of mine, I learned that she had recently embarked on a journey of caregiving. I wanted to give her a word of encouragement or comfort. She didn’t ask for advice, although she had said that she read my book,  “Finishing Well: Finding Joy in the Journey” and had gleaned some information which she felt might be helpful and ideas that she would try to keep in mind.

My heart broke with the knowledge of what would likely be a long journey ahead of her. It is no easy task. Many of our loved ones require constant supervision and need help with everyday activities. I hoped that she would have the strength to endure in the difficult times. She mentioned that this was not something she had taken on alone – which is such a blessing as it divides the load and shares both the joy and sorrow. Since she is a believer, my friend will also be drawing on the strength and comfort that comes from the Lord.

Joy is what will be needed for this endeavor

I encouraged my friend to find as much joy as possible by finding social networks and opportunities for her loved one to laugh and smile.

Look for ways to increase the music artistic expression in their world. Sometimes it will be a challenge to go out in public due to mobility limitations or possible inappropriate behaviors.

My sister, Peggy Whitten has a great saying that I love to quote when it comes to caring for a loved one: “They can’t enter your reality, you have to enter theirs.”

Some days their reality may seem like you’ve stumbled upon a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. That’s okay. Try to discover what activities you’re loved one might enjoy doing, (although this may change over time).  I would encourage you to venture out when you can. Help your loved one go to their place of worship, attend concerts, browse art galleries, feed ducks at the park, or visit a zoo.

Do whatever your loved one enjoyed prior to dementia and even add a few activities whenever possible.  When it comes to food, help your loved one share a meal with others whenever possible, whether it’s at a restaurant, with a church group, or a local senior center. Dining with others may also help promote better nutrition which is crucial.

Clean laundry ready for Mama to fold will bring her joy
Clean laundry ready for Mama to fold will bring her joy

Is there something that will give your loved one a sense of purpose? My Mama enjoyed folding towels. I often would bring them to her still warm from the dryer – she would hug the pile of towels and smile large. Eventually, she would begin folding and stacking them next to her. She enjoyed it so much that I must admit there were a few times I took clean, folded towels out of the linen closet to toss them into the dryer in order to give her something to fold. She also loved sorting colored beads and picking nits off of sweaters.

Anything, no matter how silly it seems, if it helps your loved one feel as if they can still do something to contribute is a worthwhile activity. Remember, the journey can be long, use your imagination to lighten the load and find all the whimsical joy you can.

Allen Barker marches to a different drum

finishing-well-in-life-alle
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.

Find our group on Facebook 

The “Piano Man” keeps rolling

finishing-well-in-life-jazz2
John Gonsalves, left discusses a song with his wife Saralu and Becky Huskey.

The monthly birthday celebration at Red Bluff Health Care got jazzed up when the piano man, otherwise known as John Gonsalves rolled up to the piano to play along.

The band, “Loosely Strung” comes by every month to help celebrate birthdays, but this month John Gonsalves, who is a short-term resident while recovering from surgery delighted the residents and musicians alike by playing a few favorites on the piano.

finishing-well-in-life-jazz
Tony Mayr, left, plays the harmonica in a duet with John Gonsalves.

John was accompanied by another resident, Tony Mayr, a fabulous harmonica player, who has been hooked on the harmonica ever since he came across a toy one as a young lad. That one got destroyed and was replaced by a better instrument. Since each harmonica only has one key, Tony carries a box of harmonicas in various keys with him.

Since the age of 15, John has been playing a variety of instruments. He occasionally played piano with local bands such as Jr. Lesher and Dale  Twiggs band. He played his part in the military as a member of the US Army’s “Screamin’ Eagles Band”. The band traveled throughout the United States and Canada, performing in parades and revues.

After the Army, John attained a Master’s degree in composition and jazz arranging.  He put those skills to good use throughout his 33-year career as a music teacher in Tehama County. One of the members of “Loosely Strung”, Becky Huskey, was offered the opportunity to become Antelope School District’s full-time music instructor when John retired from his position.

He also played with a variety of well-known performing artists, such as the Smothers Brothers, Bobby Vinton, Donnie Brooks and The Drifters as well as every casino in the area. A great honor came to him by way of being chosen to serve a term as assistant grand organist for the Masons of California – a position that took him and his wife, Saralu all over the state.

John is a quiet soul, who prefers to stay in the background – usually at a piano and let his music do the talking.

Ironically, they ended the birthday party with the old Beatles song, “When I’m Sixty-Four”. Many of the residents in attendance were smiling and singing along–perhaps remembering back when they were 64.

 



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.

Find our group on Facebook 

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

And never brought to mind? 

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

And days o’ lang syne!

The new year often brings with it certain hopes and aspirations. This is the time for new beginnings, do-overs and fresh starts. We tell ourselves that perhaps this year we will do better, be better, live better. The ‘R’ word gets tossed around a bit, if not verbally, at least the general idea of a resolution to eat better, get more exercise, or improve in whatever area we perceive we fell short in last year.

If you do decide to make a change or two, consider becoming more social. The Alzheimer’s Society has conducted a study which shows that 42 % of family and friends mistakenly think that once a person with dementia stops recognizing loved ones, they don’t benefit that much from spending time with them. According to the Alzheimer’s Society, family visits can stimulate feelings of happiness, comfort and security.finishing_well-in-life-connect

Staying connected and taking part in activities helps a person with dementia feel less isolated.

Alzheimer’s Society is calling on people to make a positive New Year’s resolution to spend time with people with dementia and help them take part in activities they enjoy to keep connected.

Jeremy Hughes, chief executive of Alzheimer’s Society, said: “After spending time with friends and family over the festive period, New Year can be a bleak and lonely time for people with dementia and their carers. It’s so important for people with dementia to feel connected throughout the year.

“Spending time with loved ones and taking part in meaningful activities can have a powerful and positive impact, even if they don’t remember the event itself. We’re urging people to get in touch with us and find out how we can help you stay connected.”

If you have hesitated to visit someone because you are not sure what you would talk about, remember, it really doesn’t matter what you say. Simply entering the room with a smile and taking their hand can create a connection. As far as what to say, try reciting scripture, reading poetry or the newspaper. Perhaps picking up a novel you were interested in and reading a few chapters each visit.

Is someone waiting for you?

Sing, sing, singing the blues away

Are you feeling blue? Overwhelmed? Take heart – or take up singing.

The almost magical affect music has on those suffering from dementia are well established, but what about those who care for them?

Here’s some good news: I just read about a study that showed a wonderful side-benefit to music therapy. It seems that it does more than enhance the quality of life of dementia patients – it also appears to improve the mood and emotions of caregivers.

Another surprise, according to this five-month study conducted in the UK, was that the benefit lasted well after the trial ended, measurements taken two months later showing continued improvement.

Music is the language of the soul. It appears to enter the brain differently than words alone or other noise. To gain the most benefit from musical therapy, it is important to be engaged in the music somehow, rather than just having it play in the background.

A few ways to really engage are:

Singing, humming or whistling is the best way to connect to the music. Also, the use of headphones can be helpful as well as viewing a music video. The most effective songs seem to be the tunes from a persons ‘formative years’. For my Mama, who was born in 1931, the top hits of the 1940s as well as hymns had the most impact on her. A variety of online sites such as www.youtube.com  can provide easy access to a variety of music videos.

Not sure what music is best? Try a song and watch for a positive reaction. Develop a playlist. If it turns out that the list is short, it is okay. If someone has dementia, songs can be played over and over again as long as they are helpful to the listener.

Have you noticed this to be true in your experience?

Singing along

One of the most surprising discoveries we made in this adventure called “Caring for Mama”, was that the ability to sing does not decline at the same rate at other abilities – even talking. It could be, as my husband says that “Music does not reside in the brain, it lives in the soul.”

That certainly proved to be true in Mama’s case.  Even after her capability to talk or carry on any type of conversation was gone, her notes-finishing-well-in-lifeability to sing remained.  We believe the challenge is to discover exactly which songs or type of music ‘strikes a chord’ with your loved one. We were fortunate as our family had songs while we were growing up on a regular basis–especially on family road trips.

The deepest held songs may be the ones that your loved one connected to in their youth. For example, we took Mama to attend a concert. The music style was from the 1930s-40s. The singers were accompanied by a piano and banjo players. Mama watched the players on the stage intently and seemed to enjoy the music. About halfway through, the band played “You are my Sunshine” and she surprised us by singing along!

I was quite astonished as I had never heard her sing that song before. With a bit of research, I discovered that it became popular in the late 1930s. Mama was born in 1931, so it was one that she connected to early in life and apparently it stayed with her even into her 80s.