Let The Music Play: Connecting Through Dementia
Posted by Eva Hamer, Music Therapist
Susan was overwhelmed. Her job allowed her to work from home to care for her mother, Adeline, but juggling work tasks with her mother’s increasing need for care proved challenging beyond what she thought was possible.
Adeline had dementia and colon cancer. She had been a school teacher and in between moments of agitation she still had a warm, friendly tone to her now nonsensical speech.
As a music therapist for Adeline, I would visit her home, and Susan was always quick to apologize as their three large, joyful rescue dogs tripped over each other to greet me at the door, or tried to vocalize along with our music. Even with a caregiver eight hours a day and support from our hospice staff, Susan was hurried and anxious.
Susan grieved her mother’s cognitive decline. Growing up, she had admired her mother’s intelligence and was taught to value her own. Now that Adeline could no longer answer simple questions, Susan felt her mom was "already gone." She spoke of rare moments of increased lucidity like visits from a ghost — each time her mother was able to orient to reality and speak with her, she knew it may be the last time.
In my visits with Adeline, I usually found her at the kitchen table with newspapers or a magazine spread out in her view. She would flip through the pages mumbling softly to herself, usually appearing content and relaxed. “Pleasantly confused,” I wrote again and again in my notes.
When I took out my guitar for the first time, Adeline blurted out, “Oh, I like you!” — a rare coherent statement at that point in her decline. I began playing and singing, recreating upbeat songs from Adeline’s younger years. Adeline immediately began singing along with me and we swayed to the music together. Soon, Susan appeared from the other room, where she had been on a call for work. Her eyes teared up to hear her mother singing again. She brought out her phone several times to take video of her mother’s reactions to the music. I paused in between songs as Adeline giggled and exclaimed, “That is so fun!”
After our first visit, Susan explained that hearing her mother singing let her know that Adeline was still "there." She was fascinated that music could momentarily “bring her back” as she described it, and extremely grateful for the opportunity to have that moment. We recalled the titles of the songs we sang together as she jotted them down, planning to sing with her mother in between our visits. In each later visit, Susan had recalled another song from her mother’s past for us to sing together.
In our last visit, Adeline was in bed. Her physical decline was giving her pain and causing her to sleep more, and though she didn’t interact with me, I played for her a final time, hoping to bring comfort to her final days. Susan worked quietly in another room during our visit, expressing a new calm to me before I left.
One last time, she expressed gratitude for the musical experiences she shared with her mother in her final weeks and months, and finally she expressed feeling at peace with what she had already lost of Adeline.
Adeline and Susan, and families like them, continuously fill me with joy for this work. I feel privileged for the opportunity to be present when music brings connection, even through isolating decline.
Note: Names have been changed.