In my Musical Memories service, I sing in assisted living/nursing facilities and private homes, one-to-one with elders, many of whom have some form of dementia. They are among my favorite people on the planet because they are so real, so pure, and, yes, childlike – but in the highest and most evolved sense of that word. Their emotions – joy, sadness, even anger – are right there at the surface and they no longer have the ability or the need to feign anything.
People have asked me what I get out of doing this. To answer that question, I thought I’d describe a typical afternoon with the elders.
Armed with a list of potential “clients” from the activities director, I entered the first room and plopped down on the floor next to the bed. (The beds in this facility are very low to the ground to reduce the fall risk, which I find very convenient for my purposes.) I never know if the person is even going to be awake, much less able to understand why I’m there or interested in music or visitors.
Fortunately, the woman beside me was all of those things. She sang along on the first song, You Are My Sunshine. (A lot of people sing along – or try to – on that one.) And she listened with great appreciation to the other songs I sang, saying after each one, “That’s so sweet.” As I was getting ready to leave after a half-hour or so, she told me how much she always enjoys my visits, although we’d never met before, so I told her I could stay awhile longer, which made her very happy. I asked where she was from, and while she couldn’t quite remember the city, she knew she was from Texas. When I remarked that I, too, am from Texas, she was amazed and delighted to run into someone from home. I didn’t feel it was relevant to inform her that we are both currently living in Texas. Instead we just held hands and talked about how you can take the girl out of Texas, but you can’t take Texas out of the girl.
From there I dropped in on one of my “regulars”, a woman who, in an earlier stage of life had been a professional singer. Although she isn’t able to carry on a coherent conversation, she can still carry a tune like nobody’s business and she loves to sing. Sometimes when I’m singing with her, people gather outside her door to listen. I think I have a pretty nice voice, but believe me, it’s not me those people come to hear. She can’t recall the words, but she knows the melody of most of the old songs I sing. Two of her favorites are Sentimental Journey and Fly Me To The Moon. She likes it when I hold her hand, and sometimes she tells me how much she loves me. I often wonder if she thinks I’m someone else, or if she just senses that I’m a kindred spirit who loves her, too. And I take great delight in believing that when I’m her age, no matter what’s going on with my mind, people might still enjoy hearing me sing.
Next on my list was another of my favorite ladies with whom I’ve sung many times before. She once told me that she used to be in the glee club in high school and I know she loves to sing. But this day the activities director had alerted me to the fact that she had been struggling recently and also that someone very close to her had passed away suddenly the day before. Although apparently she had not been informed about that, I think somehow people just know. So when I entered her room, I wasn’t surprised to find her very angry and hostile. When she demanded to know why I was there and what I wanted, I told her I’d come to see if she’d like to sing. Well, she let me know in no uncertain terms that she definitely did NOT want to sing! So I smiled and told her that I would go, but that I was so happy to see her. She suddenly looked surprised and pleased, and her anger passed – at least for a moment – and she smiled at me with real warmth. I suppose I might have stayed and tried to cajole her into singing, but for me it all comes down to respect, so I left.
After striking out with a couple of other people on my list – one who was on the phone (undoubtedly with someone way more important than I), one who was sleeping so soundly I didn’t have the heart to wake her, and one who very kindly and politely told me that she had no interest in spending time with me – I came upon one of my clients in her wheelchair at the nurses’ station. It took a while for her to understand that I wanted to sing with her. At first she thought I wanted to “sleep” with her, and she said she was worried that she’d roll over on top of me. But once we got all that straightened out, we had a grand old time, singing from one of my songbooks, with her taking the lead on most of the songs. There wasn’t much tune or melody involved, but we had fun going through all the words…with gusto!
When I entered the last room on my list, I really didn’t expect much, because the woman in bed seemed to be completely unresponsive. Truthfully, she reminded me a lot of my own mother after she had had a stroke when I was a young girl. Like Mom, this woman just sort of stared at nothing with wide eyes, and though her mouth was open, she made no sounds at all. But I sang and held her hand and chatted with her. At first I felt like I was just singing for myself – which is fine since I love these old songs – but as I sang a song that seems to be a particular favorite of people of that generation – You’ll Never Know – I got the impression that she was enjoying it. It seemed as though her brow softened a bit. When I sang a couple more of the Greatest Generation’s greatest hits – Till Then and Let Me Call You Sweetheart – I could have sworn her eyes were smiling ever so slightly, even though her expression didn’t really change. But as I was preparing to leave, she turned toward me, looked me in the eyes, pulled me to her and kissed my cheek! Then she wordlessly but unmistakably mouthed, “Thank you” and she smiled…all the way into my heart.
That’s what I get out of doing this.