Ann is a short woman with a round face framed by soft blonde gray hair. Today she’s wearing blue pants, sneakers, and a sweatshirt draped with Mardi Gras Beads – some are colorful and some spell
L-O-V-E. Around her waist is a wide canvas belt – the type the staff use to help lift people; despite the fact that Ann is totally mobile and needs no assistance.
I learn that today is Ann’s first day in a locked dementia care wing of a large nursing home. Her son is with her and I get the sense that she is experiencing this as a “visit” somewhere. She appears unconcerned and a bit curious about her surroundings.
The staff tell me Ann is a pianist. “She plays beautifully.” I unpack my guitar, greet her, and invite her to come sing with me. With only slight hesitation she stands near me and I begin to sing You Are My Sunshine. Ann’s smile is immediate as she recognizes the familiar song. She joins in, moving effortlessly between lower and higher harmony parts. Clearly this woman is an accomplished musician. My own happiness explodes as I experience the kinship and connection I always feel when I sing with other musicians.
Ann’s attention quickly wanders and she moves away, strolling down the corridor, chatting with her son. He guides her back to where I am singing and brings a chair for her to the edge of the group. As she sits down I catch her eye. We sing Side by Side and Music Music Music. We sing The Old Gray Mare. I break into How Much is that Doggie in the Window. She turns to her son to say “That’s a funny song.”
Ann misses a few song lyrics here and there but I hear her beautiful harmony. On every song.
Not surprisingly, Ann’s manners are fully in tact and she stops every few minutes to ask her son if he wants to sit down too. He reassures her that he is happy to stand by her side.
As the sing along continues I “work the room,” making eye contact with residents, most of whom are reclining in easy chairs. I make sure to keep contact with Ann, giving her big smiles, thumbs up signs and compliments on the harmonies she is contributing.
While Ann is engaged singing with me, her son slips out. It makes it easier for him to leave, knowing she is engrossed in the music and interacting with me.
And then it’s almost time for me to go. I wrap up with God Bless America. As the song begins, Ann’s face lights up and she moves closer to stand face to face with me. We lock eyes, both of us smiling, with Ann adding a perfect harmony. Her vibrato locks into mine as we sing the last line in unison. When the song ends we are both grinning ear to ear. I give her a big hug and thank her. I leave, knowing I have made a new musical friend.
Walking out to my car I meet up with Ann's son Ed. He tells me that his mom was a concert pianist. He tells me he hopes the staff can find a keyboard for her to play to help keep her busy.
And then Ed tells me this story. “Last summer I got married. I wanted my mom to play at the service. She has played at lots of weddings over the years. I had one concern. For the past two years every time my mother plays, no matter what piece of music she starts out with, she ends up playing Jingle Bells. I let the pastor know that this was likely to happen during the wedding. During the rehearsals she played the chosen music and then… Jingle Bells. I felt pretty sure it would happen during the ceremony. But I was willing to take that chance so that my mother could be part of my wedding.”
Ed admitted to feeling a bit apprehensive. He laughed as he told me that people probably thought he was just nervous about getting married - when what he was really wondering was “Will mom suddenly break into Jingle Bells?”
The day of the wedding arrived. Ed’s mother never missed a beat or a note. She played beautifully. No sign of Jingle Bells.
Ed and I talked about this. We shared a laugh and I thought about what a good son he was. His big smile told me how proud he was of his mother’s talent and how much he enjoyed this memory of her.
So why does Ann always play Jingle Bells?
The answer is really pretty simple. Jingle Bells is a song from her childhood. No doubt she sang it many, many times and It is deeply linked to memories of happy times.
Research tells us that it is the songs of our youth that “stick” in our memory. We know that music and memory seem to be almost hardwired together in our brain.
For people living with dementia, music may be a way to access feelings and memories that are otherwise hard to reach or articulate.
Each week I lead music and singing experiences with seniors, many of whom are living with dementia. Which songs bring the most smiles and the most vivid memories? The popular songs from their childhood and their youth -including the holiday songs, the patriotic songs and the songs of faith. The songs that are linked by emotion to our memories. We all have our own favorites - our own “Jingle Bells.”
Music has been a gift in Ann’s life. As her dementia progresses, there may be many more renditions of Jingle Bells. I have no doubt that her family will happily sing along, appreciating her musical gift and the connection it allows them to have with her.
You can be sure I will be adding Jingle Bells to my repertoire for Ann.
Would Jingle Bells be on your list of songs that evoke strong memories?
What’s your song? What’s your story?