Every time I visit my Mom, it’s a crapshoot. I never know who I will find when I punch in the code and open the door to her memory unit. Will she be wandering the living area talking to herself? Will I find her marching down the hall as though she has something important to accomplish? Or will I find her sitting on the sofa, her chin hanging to her chest, fast asleep? It is hard to know what her mood will be like after days upon days in the same room. And when she finally sees me, I never know how long it will take for her to recognize my face. I try not to have any expectations. It seems each time I come in, it takes a little longer for her to light up.
I know I’m blessed that she still knows me, but it’s so scary when someone you love has an incurable disease that erases bits of them one day at a time. So rather than lament what’s lost, I’m trying to enjoy what’s left. That means shifting the way I connect with her and finding new ways to communicate. She no longer can have a conversation because she can’t reach the words. But she can still laugh and sing and dance.
My Mom has always loved the arts. She was the founder of the JET Theatre and she loved opera, symphony and ballet. And although her dementia continues to progress, turn on a tune and you’ll find she hasn’t lost her love for music. Plenty of research shows dance and music can clear the dust that accumulates with dementia and Alzheimer’s and actually create better connection and communication. It seems to open a backdoor to her brain so she can still access good feelings and memories. Just hearing the music seems to wake her up, lift her spirits and bring a big smile to her face.
While she was never a singer before, she is now. And even though we never used to regularly jump up and dance when we were together, we do now. Without words, she seems to do better with experiences that connect us rather than conversations. Music always seems to get a positive response. Recently, I walked in to find her sitting by herself, mumbling words and looking so forlorn. Then the music started and everything changed. (Check out this cellphone video!)
She loves to move, go for a walk, play catch with a balloon. Exercise is both invigorating and calming for her. And it’s a relief for me to have something I can do with my Mom that brightens her day. We can bond without even a word.
If you’re a caregiver to a person with dementia, do what you can to incorporate their senses. Put on music, give them colorful flowers to arrange or something delicious to eat or a fluffy pet to hold. My Mom was never a dog lover but she is now. I think she relishes their unconditional love. So I usually will bring my dogs, Yogi and Lulu, when I visit.
And when the visit is over, make sure to hold their hand or give them a strong hug. I love when my Mom throws her arms open for a hug. It reminds me she’s still in there. A good hug is sometimes all that’s needed— just as much for me as for her.
Looking for a doctor specialized in memory care?
Visit stjoeshealth.org to find a doctor near you, or call 1-800-231-2211, and we can guide you through the process.