When Words Have Lost Their Meaning

When Words Have Lost Their Meaning post page

Online Dementia Journal

By Online Dementia JournalJune 15th, 2019

When Words Have Lost Their Meaning

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by Mary Sue Wilkinson,
Founder of Singing Heart to Heart


Brad is a hefty, tall man with wavy gray hair and a huge smile. Brad’s got style; wearing colorful button-down shirts, pants with a crease, and penny loafers. 

And Brad loves music. He literally turns his whole body into a percussion instrument whenever I play and sing in the dementia care community where he lives. He listens intently, slaps the side of his leg, or sometimes the top of his knee, or his chest. His feet dance on the floor in front of his chair. I’ve heard Brad sing and I know he has a beautiful, baritone voice. But most days he just hums along as he keeps the beat. Words are hard for Brad. 

Conversations with Brad are animated, enthusiastic, rhythmic, and appropriate in tone and cadence. But it’s highly unlikely that you will really know exactly what he is trying to tell you. He’s happy to hear you say “You’ve got that right!” or “You bet!” or “Sounds good, Brad!” But a conversation with give and take would be challenging.

Connecting Family Members Through Music

Last week, Brad had a visitor during music time. A woman I had never seen before came in and pulled up a chair next to him. As I began to sing, she turned to face him. She drew Brad’s attention to her face, locking eyes with him. And then she began to sing. Brad (who you will recall usually only hums) began to sing the words to the song, watching her face intently and following her lead. Sometimes they held hands and she frequently smiled and lovingly encouraged him. 

When the sing along ended, I walked out to the parking lot with Brad’s visitor. She told me she was his sister and began thanking me, emotionally and profusely, for giving her a way to connect with her brother. She said “We can’t have a conversation anymore and I never know what to do when I visit him. It’s so hard. Today, because of the music I was able to do something fun with him.” I asked her about Brad’s musical background and learned, much to my surprise, that he had never played the drums. I encouraged and invited her to come back next time I am there to sing. We talked about how she might bring a CD player with her when she visits.

Opportunity Cost

Brad’s sister is not the first family member I’ve seen connecting during music sessions. In fact, whenever family members happen to be in attendance, I witness smiles and joy. The visitors seem to relax because they know what to do and there’s no pressure to have a conversation.

But having family members there for music is not the norm. That got me to thinking about what family members are missing out on. In business this would be called opportunity cost, and it means the loss of a potential gain from other alternatives, when one alternative is chosen. In other words, not using music to connect has an opportunity cost. 

There are many ways to help families stay connected to their loved ones who are living with dementia. 

But the opportunity cost of not using music is huge.

And so, I have come up with two requests for you and an idea of how I might contribute to making sure family members have the opportunity to connect through music. 

Two Requests

Can you invite and encourage family members to join music sessions for the people you serve? I mean really invite them. Make sure they know when music takes place so they can come and visit during that time. Put it in a newsletter, hang up a poster, mail them an invite?

Can you have at least one or two small CD players available for family members to use when they visit? Can you tell family members about this and show them how to use them and offer a few song suggestions? 

My Offer 

Email me at: MarySue@SingingHeartToHeart.com and include a brief description of how you are helping family members connect through music. If you do this, I will send you a free copy of my sing along CD. The CD has 18 songs that family members can sing along with. Be sure to include your name and mailing address. 

So that’s it. Remember: When words fail, music speaks. I hope to hear from you. 

I’m Mary Sue. I grew up in Iowa in a musical family and I’ve been singing as long as I can remember. I got my first guitar when I was twelve years old. My mom saved up green stamps to buy it for me. (Thanks mom!) 

I’m the founder of Singing Heart to Heart and the Young at Heart Music Program. My passion for singing with elders started when I sang for my father-in-law who had dementia. He had lost all language but when I sang the hymns he knew and loved, he could sing every word. Perfect pitch. He even added harmony. 

I quickly learned what research is now documenting. Music is a powerful tool to help us connect, find joy, and spark memories. Especially for people living with dementia. I've seen this first hand. I lead over 400 singing and music experiences for seniors each year.

I’m a career educator, a certified music teacher, an experienced speaker and trainer, and a professional musician. I’m also the author of Songs You Know by Heart: A Simple Guide for Using Music in Dementia Care. Teepa Snow endorses my book and my work.


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