More on Music for Dementia: The Comfort of the Familiar

It’s still snowing here. But we prepared in advance, so things are not too crazy today. The pantry is full, Mom is snoozing, and the coal stove is keeping us warm. Instead of pepping Mom up with rock and roll, my sister had the inspired idea to play church hymns. It settled everybody down.

Between the Pond and the Woods

Like many people of my generation, my time in the church pews has dropped to near zero. But the small town where I grew up was a lot like Garrison Keillor’s fictional community of Lake Woebegone.  We went to the 11 AM service at the Lutheran Church every week. My dad was a well-regarded singer who performed in local theater productions and sang beautiful solos with the Lutheran choir. During elementary school, I sang in the children’s choir. Later in life I listened to my dad from the pews.

Though I’m seldom aware of it, I have a huge library of hymns in my head and can probably hum a hundred of them without straining to remember. Mom can’t go to church now because of her mobility problems. But Garrison Keillor’s weekly broadcasts remind me that there’s no reason I can’t bring church to her. On some of his performances, he manages to prod a whole theater full of people into singing the old hymns — and this is a comedy show!

Songs like Amazing Grace and Rock of Ages bring a high level of comfort to my mother. As a young mother she kept her voice low because my father made fun of her for singing off key. Dad passed away many years ago and now she doesn’t seem to remember his criticism (or him, for that matter!) Every once in a while she starts to hum in this wild operatic voice that comes from a strange, inexplicable source. The sound is weird, but vibrant and full of joy.

Her singing makes me wonder: what else is still in there? How is her internal library organized? Dewey decimal, random chance? Is there anything that might add to her peace or happiness? The are countless mysteries behind her eyes. It gives us something to ponder on a grey, snowy day.

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