When I arrived at the memory care facility, 11 residents were seated in the front living room, in a circle around the perimeter. Almost everyone smiled in greeting; one man was vacantly absent. A young, smiling and empathetic staff-person wheeled in resident # 12; I started opening cases, setting up equipment and asking about general questions about their day. “It was warm,” one said. “We went outside in the garden,” offered another. I felt like congratulating them on their modest achievements. These adults are living with Alzheimer’s, that most dreaded disease that some say robs us of who we are, while we are still alive.
Fortunately, research is dispelling this myth; but it is a sad truth that many family members do not hold onto hope for being able to continue a meaningful relationship with their loved one. Too often, when families bring their relative to a dementia care resident program, visitation occurs infrequently or ceases altogether. Dementia care units do not receive many visitors, outside of immediate family. Tidewater Arts Outreach is working to change that, through the celebration that is the arts.
Since tonight’s program was a sing-a-long I passed out songbooks that I created for such occasions. The book includes popular music and Americana from the 20s to the 50s, in large type, with a table of contents. My plan was to move through the book, one page at a time, and encourage residents to sing, emote and engage as much as possible. We started with vocal warm-ups.
The lyrical ‘la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la,’ with me raising and lowering my hand to demonstrate changes in pitch, allowed everyone, including participants of limited verbal ability, to join in right away and get used to the idea that we would be singing. I moved at a slow pace and watched for participation and comfort levels. We repeated the first series several times before raising the pitch the first half-step. By the time we were ready to try “Bubble, bubble, bubble, bubble gum,” in the same pitch and (slow) tempo, I had gained enough trust that everyone was attempting to sing along. A few were only mouthing the words. One woman was insistent that she did not have a singing voice; I assured her that it didn’t matter a bit; just the act of singing was good, if she enjoyed doing it.
Soon after we went around the room with introductions. Everyone wanted to be called by his or her own name. I learned their names and used them throughout my program.
In between each song, I used the song’s subject matter or cultural reference to engage participants in the material.
• “Do you remember who sang that song?”
• “Who is from west of Virginia?/ Where?”
• “What was it like to live there?”
• “Who remembers going to the boardwalk in Virginia Beach when they were younger?”
• “Who is a mom/grand-mom/great-grand-mom?”
• “Who served in the armed forces? Which one? Where?”
• “Do you have any special requests?”
These simple, open-ended questions ensure that people are engaged. The truth is, they were so hungry for the opportunity to talk about themselves, all I had to do was to let them know I was genuinely interested. They sang, they laughed, they reminisced, they consoled and they supported one another.
I always close with “God Bless America.” Bill, a former captain in the US Navy, had been beaming at me the entire hour. At the start of the familiar patriotic tune, tears started rolling down his face. “They’re not sad tears,” his caregiver informed me. “This is so good for him.”
In fact, these engaging activities, using familiar, well-loved songs, are powerfully healing for people with dementia. Research shows many benefits. I’ve learned that while he left side of the brain plays a key role in speech and language ability, the right side of the brain has the capability to become enhanced and change its structure to compensate for left-side deficits. Right brain activities include holistic thought, intuition, creativity and art and music – all powerful stuff to tap into with a person who is intellectually challenged. I have also learned that dementia suffers are still creative people, with many capabilities intact (sense of humor, sense of self, personal history), for far longer than many give them credit for. It is also important to note that enriching activities that are intellectually and emotionally stimulating help a brain by forming new connections, firing synapses and developing dendrites, even in a person with advanced dementia. So we need to continue to reach out to these deserving, but vastly underserved folks. Many do not have regular visitors. The arts are the perfect vehicle to reach out and engage. Tidewater Arts Outreach’s website and programs are great community resources to learn where, how and why to engage in the arts with seniors in long term care and other special needs populations.