I started seeing this couple because he was on hospice and she was his caregiver. He had dementia, and his disease was causing him to be agitated and angry and sometimes even aggressive towards his wife. She was invested in keeping him at home as long as possible. As a nurse, she knew what she was getting herself into, and she wanted as much help as possible in helping her husband to stay calm. That’s why the hospice called me, the music therapist.
In our first session, he was dozing in his recliner, late in the afternoon following a dose of something sedating. I asked her about his music background and preferences, and she showed me his collection of CDs and the Bose stereo system that made him so proud. I sang a few songs, but he didn’t really wake up. I left some CDs with his wife to try playing when he became agitated, and we agreed that I would come back earlier in the day next time, when he was more likely to be awake and, perhaps, needing my help to relax.
The second time I went, he was awake, lying in his hospital bed in the living room. I sang a few songs from a few different genres, trying to find out what would spark his attention. Big Band music? Not really. Hymns? Nope. Country? Well, not really. “Home on the Range?” Why, yes! That one caught his attention enough to get him singing with me!
She was surprised! She had never heard him sing before. We tried some more folk songs – “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain,” “You Are My Sunshine,” “The Crawdad Song” – he knew and sang each one of them, practically word for word. We had discovered how to tap into his musical self.
The following sessions fell into a pattern. She and I would sit on opposite sides of his bed. He and I would sing through the couple dozen songs that he knew and remembered. She and I would ask questions to spark memories. “School Days” brought back stories of walking to the country school in the snow. “Home on the Range” would bring up all kinds of tales about living and working in Kansas. I watched for the times that he became distracted or started getting agitated, and changed my music to bring him back to the moment. I also found ways to encourage him and her to interact. She held his hand and they looked into each other’s eyes as we sang “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” I learned the songs that they played at their wedding, and although he didn’t remember them well enough to sing, my renditions gave them more time to reconnect as two sweethearts.
She delighted in the discovery that he really could sing. He seemed to enjoy singing with me and having a good time together with his wife. In fact, even though he often didn’t remember his wife during normal daily activities, he did know who she was when we were having music together. He even started recognizing me when I came in the door, at least as a pleasant surprise, even if he couldn’t remember my name.
As his disease progressed, things got worse. Our sessions got shorter as he struggled to stay awake. She had a harder time keeping up with caring for all of his needs and brought in extra help from a private duty company. Her kids spent more nights in the living room so that she could get some sleep in her own bed. Everyone’s patience got stretched to the limit. Still, every week in our music therapy session, the two of them were a couple again, and he could remember, and she could hold his hand, and everyone smiled.
Long-term caregiving can be such a struggle, filled with grief and sadness and frustration and exhaustion. The relationships between a husband and wife, or between a mother and daughter or a father and son – they change, simply because of the way a disease progresses and how someone needs more help than ever before.
In the music, though, in the moment, the beauty, the love, the goodness of the relationship can shine through again. The caregiver and care receiver can enjoy passing time together, without the pressure of the caregiver having to be in charge of yet another activity. Maybe there are hoots of laughter. Sighs of relaxation. Cheesy grins. Heartfelt words of love.
Isn’t that all worth it?
How has music impacted your relationship as a caregiver with your loved one? How have you seen music therapy affect others’ relationships? Please leave your comment below.