My mom is sad. I arrive to find her lying on her bed, weeping.
“I just want to die,” she says between sobs. “What is happening to me?”
Kenneth is almost completely nonfunctional. He’s no real companion for her anymore. I haven’t heard him utter a word in three weeks. He sits in a wheelchair facing the television, and she sits next to him.
“Who’s Kenneth?” she asks, after I’ve whisked her away for a walk in the sculpture garden. When she is away from him, she doesn’t seem to miss him. But when she is with him, next to him, I imagine she misses him acutely.
“I have no home,” she says, like she did in her early days at the facility. “Is this where I live?” She doesn’t want me to leave her there alone.
What can I do?
I turn to the one thing that seems to comfort her, distract her, give her some sense of home — music.
I learned the power of music after watching the documentary, “Alive Inside,” about one man working to get personal iPods to dementia patients in nursing homes around the country. Totally mute patients start to talk and come alive when he puts headphones on them. Sad and confused patients become happy. It’s astounding.
But the thing is, it’s not just any music that is likely to bring a dementia patient to life again.
It’s their music — the music that meant something to them when they were younger, that was a part of their everyday lives and highlighted their milestones. In effect, it’s the soundtrack of their lives.
I saw that movie in January, and one day soon after, I sat with my mom to learn the songs on her life’s soundtrack.
“Mom, what are your favorite songs?” I asked.
“Huh?” she responded. “Oh, I don’t know.”
Silly me. Amyloid proteins are taking over her brain. There’s obviously no room for song titles to be hanging around, just waiting to be retrieved.
My mom was born in 1927. Using my iPhone, I started googling popular songs starting in the late 1930s.
“How about, ‘I love you for sentimental reasons?'”
“What does it sound like?” she asked.
And so I started singing. (YouTube would have worked better but for some reason it didn’t occur to me.)
“Oh, I know that one,” she said.
“Do you like it?” I asked.
“Do you like it?” she responded. “I’m not the only one who matters here.”
Hmmmm. In trying to be accommodating, my mom can be so difficult.
Still, we managed to go through a hundred songs, maybe two hundred. I ended up with a list of twenty. I bought the songs, and then I added several sad Englebert Humperdinck tunes she used to listen to on Sunday afternoons in the late 70s, along with any song she seemed to recognize and enjoy from the Hebrew Home’s weekly concerts featuring local musicians. Gradually, the list has been growing.
I put her playlist on my iPod, which I faithfully carry with me. When my mom is sad, I take it out and we listen together, laying on her bed, one earbud in her ear, the other in mine.
She starts to hum, recognizing each song. And sometimes she talks, seeming more connected than she has in a while. I think she feels better.
Now I just need to get her a personal iPod that she can use when I’m not there, that the staff can keep for her and help her to turn on.
That kind of seemingly minor, logistical stuff can be so hard to set up.
Wish me luck.