Tag Archives: singing

The Messenger

Muriel Aasve Blankenship (Mama)

Over the past decade or so, my Mama’s communication skills progressively deteriorated throughout the entire journey of the disease called dementia (perhaps Alzheimer’s).  The first indicators that something was wrong began to manifest as seemingly normal conversations included statements that were repeated over and over (We referred to those incidents as her loop).

As time went on, her conversation skills melted slowly away as her ability to string sentences together decreased.  At first it was a back and forth thing – there were good days and bad. The good days gave us hope, while the bad days confirmed we were still on the same downhill path.

For a period of time, Mama retained what I called ‘Muscle Memory responses’. For example, if you asked her how she was doing, she would respond, “Fine.” Or, “Would you like something to drink?” her answer might be “No”, but then she would proceed to pick up the glass and drink it right down.

Mama’s ability to sing remained long after her ability to speak went silent. We knew a lot of songs and so the majority of our visits were spent singing. Eventually, her ability to sing left as well, so I sang all the songs for both of us.

In spite of the fact that her voice was silenced, Mama still had the ability to communicate with her eyes. Quite often when I was singing, reading or praying, her eyes would fill and tears would roll down her cheeks. I found a few Psalms, such as Psalm 23 and 71 that seemed to fit her so I read them to her over and over. I knew they would minister to her spirit so it felt as if I could still ‘do’ something for her.

Over the course of this extraordinarily long journey, various folks would comment that it seemed such a shame about her condition. I had more than one conversation with the Lord regarding it as well. Early on, our family was determined that we would do everything possible to help Mama finish well, but there were times that I wondered just what could be the purpose for this lingering a little longer.

Then one day while reading Psalm 71 to her, I noticed something. Verse 18 says, “And even when I am old and gray, O God, do not forsake me, until I declare Thy strength to this generation, Thy power to all who are to come.

I wondered how Mama, who couldn’t even speak, be able to declare anything about God to anyone? I gave it some thought. I pondered it. I wondered.  Revelation came to me over time. I learned that the word ‘declare’ could also mean ‘messenger’.

Mama was a messenger. Her life was a message that didn’t need words. She silently communicated that God did not forsake her.  In spite of the long, downward journey into the valley of the “Shadow of Death” that lasted over a decade, Mama’s sweet quietness steadily declared God’s strength to everyone around her.

This season also gave her family something else. Time. The extra time we were given allowed us the opportunity to show her honor. Honor due a parent and honor to a fellow human being. We had time not only to care for her, but her condition opened doors that we never would have otherwise walked through.  We were able to get to know both residents and caregivers alike, and these visits were full of chats, sharing the love of Jesus, joys and concerns as well as praying and singing. Perhaps even providing hope to someone else on a journey that God will give them strength as well.

The day came and Jesus sent the angels; her work here was done. Mama finished well.

“What can she do?”

…that was the question a friend of mine asked me recently. She told me her Mother-in-Law just moved in with her and her husband from a rehab center following a knee replacement. The family had begun to notice she was beginning to become forgetful and was repeating herself fairly often, so they were worried about her living alone.

My friend loved the idea. She had some time off work and looked forward to spending some quality time with her lovely Mother-in-Law. At first, it worked out well – they had fun visiting and enjoying each other’s company. But then my friend had to go back to work. Suddenly, Mother-in-Law got bored.

I asked what sort of things did her Mother-in-Law like to do in the past. It turned out that she used to sew. Due to dementia, it seemed too risky to have her use a sewing machine, so we discussed other types of sewing, such as mending or hemming.  My friend remembered that she used to love to quilt, so she was going to find out if sewing the blocks together by hand might be an option – finishing the quilt wouldn’t be the goal – rather simply enjoying the process.

Discovering what your loved one enjoyed or was talented at prior to the onset of dementia is the key. Did they knit or crochet? Perhaps something like a working on a jigsaw puzzle might also be an option if your loved one has an interest in it. Grown-up coloring books have become very popular and might appeal to an older mind.

An important thing to keep in mind is that even though your loved one has diminishing abilities and might even act like a child at times, their likes and dislikes are still mature. Don’t insult them with a Barbie coloring book or puzzles with pictures of ‘Sponge Bob’

Each person has their own individual set of interests, skills, and talents, so it may take a while find just the right type of activities that will keep their interest. This process may require you to be both patient and flexible.

Sometimes a person just wants to feel useful. My Mama loved folding towels so I would sometimes quietly throw a bunch of clean towels into the dryer to fluff them up for a few minutes and then bring the whole pile of warm towels to her to fold. Mama loved it! At first she would hug the towels for a few minutes and enjoy their warmth and fragrance. Eventually, she would become surrounded by little stacks of neatly folded towels.

I also found a list that might also contain some helpful ideas: 10 Stimulating Activities for Alzheimer’s Patients

At the end of the day, your loved one simply wants what we all want – to know we’re loved. Some days will be better than others, but remember: You’re doing the best you can, and so are they.

It’s beginning to look , (smell & sound) a lot like Christmas

One of my favorite Christmas decorations.

🎼Jingle Bells, Yuletide smells, Christmas on display – bringing back the memories of a long past Christmas day.

A Christmas tree trimmed with old fashioned decorations and stockings hung by the fire along with the wonderful smells of gingerbread mingling with the sharp fragrance of pine and familiar songs of the season all work together to invoke memories of Christmas past.  Our senses are doorways through which memories can flow.

According to an article in LiveScience.com, Brain’s Link Between Sounds, Smells and Memory Revealed: Sights, sounds and smells can all evoke emotionally charged memories. A new study in rats suggests why: The same part of the brain that’s in charge of processing our senses is also responsible, at least in part, for storing emotional memories…Previously, scientists had not considered these sensory brain regions all that important for housing emotional memories, said study researcher Benedetto Sacchetti, of the National Institute of Neuroscience in Turin, Italy.

Since the Christmas season is chalk-full of sensory delights, this is the perfect time to take advantage of anything that could stir up memories in your loved one.

For example, if making gingerbread houses or gingerbread men was a beloved annual tradition, then the smell of gingerbread baking or the sight of a gingerbread house could trigger fond emotional memories of happy times past.

The Christmas wreath on our front door.

Pine trees are another seasonal smell that is fairly easy to come by this time of the year– even just a few boughs can produce that wonderful fragrance.

According to Fifth Sense, The sense of smell is closely linked with memory, probably more so than any of our other senses.

Besides smells, the sights associated with Christmas such as decorated trees, poinsettias and twinkling lights might provoke a sense of joy accompanied by a memory or two of yesteryear.

Sounds abound as well this time of the year. Christmas songs and hymns are ring out everywhere you go – stores, coffee shops and even offices. Churches sing many of the beloved Christmas hymns and if your loved one has attended church prior to developing dementia, going to a service will provide a plethora of sights, sounds and smells of the season.

Since the senses are connected to memories, it is possible to provide your loved one with memory-triggering pleasures year around, but at Christmas, it is almost as if the whole world is in this process with you. So as much as possible, take the time to enjoy the sweet-smelling, merry, twinkling, singing most wonderful time of the year.

Merry Christmas!

Whimsical joy

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.

Is there something that will give your loved one a sense of purpose? finishing_well_in_life_towelsMy 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.

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

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 

And a little child shall lead them

I have just arrived home after attending the monthly ‘Birthday Party’ held for residents at the care home where my Mama lives.  It was wonderful! Loosely Strung, a Tehama County band faithfully visits each month to play the old songs (including “Happy Birthday”) to help the celebration.

February is Mama’s birthday month and I had been looking forward to enjoying it with her. The residents seem to really take pleasure in the music, cake and ice cream. They engage at whatever level they can by clapping and singing along with old favorites.

Wayne and I try to attend as often as we’re able. We know that Mama loves music, and even though dementia has robbed her of the ability to sing or express her emotions, her eyes are still able to speak.finishing-well-in-life-cake

About half-way through the party, a young family joins the festivity. They have a small boy and a toddler. During one of the more lively songs, the little tot with curly black hair and a big smile, wiggles out of her Mama’s arms and onto the floor. To everyone’s delight, she toddles out to the center of the room and begins dancing and clapping to the music.

Up until that point, the majority of the crowd was simply enjoying the party. Those who  were able to were singing along and munching their cake and ice cream as well as keeping an eye on the tiny dancer. But then the little girl did an amazing thing.

She toddled over to one of the residents, smiled and reached her hand out to grab her walker. It was as if she put a nickel in the older lady. She suddenly came to life with a grin and began clapping to the music. The little toddler, moved on to the next one, again producing a happy response.

Everyone was watching closely now. It was almost as if there was a collective holding of breath waiting to see where she would go next. Each time she toddled up to someone, that person became more animated.

She eventually made it over to where Mama and I were sitting. She reached her hand out and touched the soft fur on one of Mama’s slipper. No reaction. Mama just looked at her. I was a bit disappointed, as I had hoped for a smile or glimmer of joy from Mama. Oh well, I thought, at least I know she was able to hear the music.

All too soon, the musicians played their last song and it was time for us to leave. When I looked over to Mama to tell her good bye and that I loved her, I noticed something – there were tears running down her cheek. She had noticed the little girl. She had reacted. Tears are the only way Mama has now of communicating with us. What a wonderful birthday celebration.

Have yourself a merry little memory

In a recent post, (It’s beginning to look alot like Christmas…) I wrote about helping your loved one awaken some memories using songs, smells and visual reminders of favorite Christmas traditions.

I would be remiss not to also emphasize the need for us to fix some of our own memories in our minds. Whether you are a caregiver, or someone who is simply concerned with memory issues. This season is a fabulous time to ‘set’ some of our own Christmas experiences into more permanent memories.finishing-well-in-life-decor-two

How? The secret is: Be sense-conscious with as many different senses at a time during this sensory-rich season of the year. Studies have shown that using multiple senses at the same time  actually works the best to help improve memory retention.

The Christmas season is filled with a multitude of sense-tickling treats. This is a good time to do something unusual or surprising for your brain. Whether you are by yourself or gathered with others, if possible, take a moment to sit down close your eyes. Try to identify what you hear and what you smell along with how you feel when you experience each of those things.

Examples might be: take in the sharp whiff of fresh cut pine, the soft alluring aroma of freshly baked cookies or simply the compelling combination of cooking smells emanating from the Christmas dinner. Listen to the sound of conversation, laughter, and familiar songs are all possible memory markers.

Don’t forget to also engage your emotions. If you include your feelings, you are more likely you are to remember something. All of these areas working together will help make your brain sit up and take notice. When it does, you release a natural growth hormone called neurotrophins, which enhances your brain’s fitness levels. Each time you open a new circuit, or a neural pathway, you do what amounts to mental sit-ups, but without the exertion.

What are some of your favorite ‘Senses of the Season’?

It’s beginning to look alot like Christmas…

Everywhere you go….

One of the wonderful things about this time of the year is that it is steeped in all the essential elements that help stir and awaken the areas in our brains that have to do with memory.finishing_well-in-life-gingerbreadment

Songs. After my Mama was unable to carry on a conversation or even speak, she was still able to sing. On good days, I could pull one of her ‘heart songs’ out of her. Perhaps it is because, as my husband says, “Music does not reside in the brain, it lives in the soul.” Heart songs are special. Not every song learned becomes a ‘heart song’, only the ones that somehow get embedded into the fabric of our souls. Of all the songs that a person might learn over the course of their lifetime, Christmas songs are very likely on the list. Whether your loved one believes that Jesus is the reason for the Season, or Santa Clause is coming to town, find out what songs stir, and awaken the music inside.

Smells. Recent studies have shown there is indeed a benefit to smelling: The actual process of smelling helps stimulate the neural pathways in our brain to keep them clear or even encourage new branches. The Christmas season brings with it a whole gaggle of smells. From freshly cut pine, to warm Christmas cookies and a host of other, unique fragrances and aromas that arise during this time of the year. Do you have memories of certain smells associated with Christmas? If your loved one is your parent, perhaps those would be the ones to begin with.

Visual memories. Just as ‘music serves as a potent trigger for retrieving memories’, decorate, or collect bits and pieces that may stimulate a lifetime of Christmas memories. Did your loved one have favorite Christmas decorations? If you don’t know, perhaps ask family members or try the standard items that might trigger nostalgia such as garland, poinsettias and lights and bells. Memory Museums are popping up in many places that seem to help patients return to long-term memories of childhood and growing up.

If you are not already incorporating any of these suggestions, give them a try during this Christmas season. Of course, the nice thing about caring for someone who is no longer reading a calendar, Christmas could happen on a very regular basis.

Please share your Christmas season songs, smells and memories with us