Oct 22, 2014

Alive Inside - Find Your Songs

Meaningful music has a place in our caregiving strategies, and can often becomes active expression and conduit of our love.

By Pamela R. Kelley
Alzheimer's Reading Room

Meaningful music has a place in our caregiving strategies, and can often becomes active expression and conduit of our love.
Forget Me Not
The State Flower of Alaska
My mother, Audrey, had a famously tin ear. She’d be the first to tell you that she couldn't carry a tune in a bucket. But she liked to sing, nonetheless. So when we began our partnership through the last five years of her life, we made a habit of singing every day.

Four songs. That was it. At any point in the day, if I heard Audrey hum a note in her distracted way, I would catch her eye and hold her glance and ask her,

“Do you want to sing with me?” 

These were our songs: Let Me Call You Sweetheart. Oh What A Beautiful Morning. My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean and You Are My Sunshine.

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There was something about these songs that she loved, though I don’t know what made them special to her. We made them ours. We hammed it up. We looked into one another’s eyes while we sang them, whether from across the room or sitting side by side. We sang them in all sorts of places, and under all sorts of conditions. But there were very few days when we didn't sing our songs, each at least once before our day was complete.

When my mom stopped singing along, I kept singing them. She would hold my gaze with her eyes widened expectantly. Sometimes she would smile. Sometimes she would reach for my hand. Sometimes she would tap a finger or a foot.

Oh What A Beautiful Morning. Thinking about it now, I realize what a great way this was for us to start our day. In the early days, it was a reminder to both of us that life was good.

“I've got a beautiful feeling. Everything’s going our way.” 

We were together.

That was the definition of “everything’s going our way” to me. She was often anxious, often frightened about what was happening to her memory. But we were together, after almost thirty years of living across the country from one another.

We were in it together to the end, come what may, and I would keep her safe. Our lives were good.

At one point, Audrey would not sit still long enough on the toilet to completely move her bowels. If she didn't finish the job in about 30 seconds, she would stand up and want to get out of there. Enough back-to-back days of this and she would become uncomfortable. Inevitably. Once uncomfortable, her mood and behavior would take a downward turn. Our songs were part of the remedy.

My Bonnie lies over the ocean. My Bonnie lies over the sea… Audrey’s favorite part of this tune was the bridge, and she could get caught contentedly in a repetitive loop of

“Bring back, bring back, bring back my Bonnie to me, to me.” 

As long as the last two notes ascended at the end, Mom would repeat the line. The song only ended when the last “to me” ended on a descending note.

Perhaps you can see how this worked with the bathroom issue. Five minutes is a long time to sing “Bring back, bring back, bring back my Bonnie to me, to me.” Ten minutes seemed an eon.

Sometimes we’d take a break and try another tune. To stop the loop, I’d have to belt out that final descending line Ethel Merman-style. But singing (and a regular rotation of Miralax) got us through that problem in good humor.

When my mother moved into a facility, we kept up with our songs. They became a rough gauge of her disease progression. Some days she didn't have every word, but she’d sing along with unformed words until she was back on the familiar chorus. Sometimes she would look at me with unmasked irritation when I’d start off. Hmm. Maybe later, I’d think.

If we were singing in her apartment with the door open, we could count on one or two of her neighbors meandering down toward the sound, sometimes walking in. Whether out of curiosity or loneliness or the power of music, I’ll never know.

I will never forget the sight of one tiny lady with bright blue eyes standing outside Audrey’s door, for she was rather shy, and singing along word-for-word to Let Me Call You Sweetheart. When we finished the song, she smiled and blew me a kiss and continued her habit of wordlessly walking up and down the hall.

Over the last six months of Audrey’s life, she really wasn't singing any longer. It was just me. I’d give her my 100-watt smile and I’d hold her gaze while I sang from the heart.

You are my sunshine. My only sunshine. You make me happy, when skies are gray. You’ll never know dear. How much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.

Three weeks before Mom died, we were sitting in the summer sunshine that was streaming through her window. I sang to her that sunshine song. Her sunken eyes followed mine and she was holding my hand. Quietly, so quietly, Audrey carried that tune with me for the first time in months, and the last time ever.

With the release of the film Alive Inside that depicts the wonderful effects of a personalized playlist for individuals with Alzheimer’s Disease, I hope that the notion gains wider adoption -- that

meaningful music can have a place in our caregiving strategies. Meaningful music can be active expressions of love.

I know I’m glad to have found our songs.

*Pamela R. Kelley is a long time contributor to the Alzheimer's Reading Room. She lives, works and writes in Anchorage, Alaska. Like many of us she went the distance.
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