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As I was leaving Beverly, one of my favorite dementia patients, I told her I was going to the beach for my birthday, and wouldn’t be coming next week. Seeing her slight frown, I said, “But I’ll bring you a seashell.” So a few days later I found myself at the shore, searching for shells – for Beverly and for other dementia people I visit and sing with every week. Seeing a particular shell, I’d think, Beverly would like those colors, or, Mary might enjoy how this one feels. And I went home with a bag of shells.
The first person I gave a shell to was Barbara, who has become a dear friend and feels almost like a co-conspirator because of her quick wit and delightfully quirky and mischievous personality. (You would probably never suspect she had dementia unless you spent a lot of time with her.) So it didn’t surprise me when, as I gave her the shell and told her I’d picked it up for her at the beach, she looked at me with mock outrage and said, “I can’t believe you went to the beach and didn’t take me with you!” Turns out she is – as I somehow suspected – a beach person like me. As she lovingly stroked and examined the shell, she told me about her childhood in Pennsylvania where months of each year were spent at the beach. And about later, waiting impatiently for her own children to be old enough to take to the beach, because she so wanted to give them that experience.
The next person I happened to see was Jay. He looked thoughtfully at his shell and started reminiscing about taking his family to the beach in California, but then segued into his time on an aircraft carrier as a member of the US Air Force during WWII. He remembered for me the wrenching sound of the misaligned screw propeller on the repurposed freighter that had been turned into a carrier. He said, “That sound about drove us crazy, but those Navy guys didn’t pay it any mind.” After a few minutes reflection on that he said, “Why don’t you sing to me?” That surprised me a little. He doesn’t always remember that I’m “the singing lady”, so I took that to mean he was ready to stop remembering certain things. Or maybe that he just wanted to remember them in a more comforting way. Either way, he held onto his shell as we sang some of his favorite songs together.
Mary, who doesn’t really speak, simply rubbed and stroked the shell I put in her hand as she looked into my eyes and smiled while I sang beach songs. Alice can’t really see anymore, but was so pleased that I had brought her a gift! She squeezed my hand and thanked me as profusely as if I’d given her a diamond tiara. Phyllis, who mostly just nods, looked at her shell closely, turning it over and over in her hand, smiled, and then gestured for me to place it on the windowsill with her other “treasures”.
And finally there was Oliver, who turned 100 years old last September, and whom I’ve been singing with – and writing about – for several years. I told him from the start that I wasn’t sure if he’d like the seashell I’d brought him, since I know he is “a lake man”. He frequently talks about the house he built on Lake Travis. He clearly loves it more than anyplace on earth. (When I asked him once where he’d be if he could be anywhere in the world, he talked about the lake house and said, “There couldn’t be anyplace better.”) He can’t understand why anyone would want to be in saltwater when you can be in lake water, and he laughed when I told him we were having our first fight – lake vs. beach. But he held the shell up to his ear to see if he could hear the ocean. After listening for a moment, he said, “I can’t hear the ocean. But what I hear is, ‘I love you. I love you.’”
Oliver’s going deaf, but there’s nothing wrong with his hearing. Because I didn’t realize it until he said it, but that’s what every one of those seashells is saying.