Activity · memory · purpose


My mom has always insisted that she cannot carry a tune. She loved to sing, but would restrain herself around others because she didn’t want to embarrass herself. My sister and I have fond memories of her singing and dancing around the living room to some of her favorite records, be it one of literally every Johnny Mathis record ever made, a Barbara Streisand album, or a Broadway show album. She also knew the lyrics to all of the songs on these albums and for most of the radio songs she grew up hearing.

It seems to be a well-known fact that music memory seems to stay with people who have dementia. There is so much information and programs that support this, which a Google search will reveal. Some examples are a local Music and Memory program provided by JF&CS, the Alzheimer’s Association’s information center, or this clinical research article from Brain: Journal of Neurology.

I see it with my mom as well. Music moves her. She remembers the words to the songs and she just has to move when she hears them. She has built up quite the dancing reputation at all of the facilities where she has been. She kicks off her shoes (much to the worry of the CNAs) and just goes. She danced for two hours straight at my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah last year! The joy exudes from every pore and she seems somehow connected to life once again.

Still going at the Bat Mitzvah…

I had the good fortune of being told about a concert that was happening last weekend by the Michael O’Neal Singers where a piece called Alzheimer’s Stories, composed by Robert S. Cohen, was having its Georgia premiere. The piece was commissioned in 2008 by a choral singer in the Susquehanna Valley Chorale, in Lewisburg, PA, who lost both of his parents to Alzheimer’s disease. The work included stories from members of the Chorale. At this presentation of the piece, the Michael O’Neal Singers brought in Tom Key, the artistic director of Theatrical Outfit, to read stories of Alzheimer’s from members of this choir in between the songs.

The Alzheimer’s Stories piece includes three parts: The Numbers, The Stories, and For the Caregivers. It is written for two soloists, and ensemble and a chorus, The first movement focuses on the discovery of the disease by Dr. Alois Alzheimer in 1901 and the statistics that have been gathered ┬ásince that time. The movement included stories of people with the disease and their memories that they kept repeating. The last movement is focused on the pain for the caregiver, but also the hope that comes from the people with the disease themselves. A patient at a nursing home asked a caregiver to sing and when asked what to sing, the patient said, “sing anything”.

Find those you love in the dark and light. Help them through the days and nights. Keep faith. They sense what they cannot show. Love and music are the last things to go. Sing anything.

Alzheimer’s Stories, libretto by Herschel Garfein; composer Robert S. Cohen


In meeting with my mom’s doctor, recently, he suggested that my mom doesn’t just need things to do, she needs to feel that what she is doing has purpose. She has often said that she wants to be doing something meaningful. She wants a job. Most of her life, she worked and her work was meaningful. She was a professor, a teacher, a counselor, a psychologist who helped children. It made so much sense what the doctor said. We can’t just give her tasks to do. They needed to have meaning.

I noticed when I brought my dog and she was walking the dog, she seemed to find that meaningful. She talked a lot about what the dog was doing. My dog was “investigating” and “making decisions”. My mom walked with purpose, she was focused outside herself.

One day I came and she was doing a puzzle. The high school student working with her was telling her that she really needed her help. She was not just doing a puzzle to do it; she was helping. The staff at her place have really jumped on board with giving my mom meaningful work. She is now helping to serve ice cream, doing inventory in the “store”, sweeping up after craft projects, and cleaning up after meals. She often does not remember that she has done these things and will still say that she has nothing really to do, but showing her a picture or bringing her to the places where she has helped out have worked in reminding her. I told her just today that they are so fortunate to have her there because they realized they needed extra help to get everything done and she is so good at the work she is doing. She nodded and smiled.

She is not alone in wanting to feel a purpose to her daily life. We all want to feel like what we are doing has meaning. It is just one more reminder that people with Alzheimer’s disease are still people and they have the same needs as we do. It is so nice that she is in a place that understands this!