Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Eldergarten for Alzheimer's Patients


Bill Tapia is 103 years young, and still plays the ukulele.


Late this morning I packed my ukulele and harmonicas into my car and drove into town to sing for the Catholic Charities’ Alzheimer's group. 
I found a room filled with a group of about twenty people, a mixture of Alzheimer’s patients and volunteer caregivers, seated in chairs arranged in a "U."  
One lonely-looking empty chair—my stage—stood by itself in the middle of the open part of the U. 
It looked, at first, as if it would be a tough audience. The patients' eyes were, how shall I say this, vacant?  Many of them sat staring into their laps; I couldn't even see their eyes. Some of the volunteers avoided eye contact with me. The person who invited me to come warned them not to expect too much—I'm a kindergarten teacher, not a musician/performer.
I've learned to fight fire with fire. Go straight at the fear. “No, problem,” I told myself. “I’m a kindergarten teacher." There aren't many audiences tougher than the one I usually sing for. I unpacked my gear, introduced myself, and launched off into about 45 minutes of singing, playing ukulele, and howlin’ out tunes on the harmonica. Kids songs, spirituals, Tin Pan Alley songs, and, of course, a Hank Williams tune or two.
It turned out that songs that work for short-attention-span kindergartners are perfect, perfect! for Alzheimer’s patients. Songs aimed at the heart with simple words, great melodies, and lots of repetition. 
Before long the patients and their caregivers came to life, like droopy houseplants given the water they need to stop slouching. They joined in singing, clapping and stomping their feet. 
We had a great time. Some patients danced! By the time we got to “If You’re Happy and You Know It” my failing voice was almost lost in the crowd. In the third verse the audience is supposed to shout “Hooray!” and throw a fist into the air. They did better than I ever thought they would. They were shouting, "HOORAY!!" as loudly as any roomful of five year olds. 
Music works magic. You would not have guessed that anyone in this room was touched by senility. Too many smiles. Too much music. Too much magic.
I’m coming back in two weeks for an encore performance.

10 comments:

Jinksy said...

Music magic, indeed! I've watched documentaries on the subject of Alzheimer's and music being a winning combination...

Bagman and Butler said...

Great experience...great blog.

Teresa Evangeline said...

Dan, how wonderful! What an amazing and rewarding experience for all. Bringing such joy to people is a great gift and you're obviously not afraid to use it. This is inspiring. Thank you.

Sarah Lulu said...

I loved that story so much Dan.

Well done.

steven said...

crazy man!!! that's such an awesome gift to hand on . . . access to the free magic of music. steven

Dan Gurney said...

Hi, Jinksy. Yes, I've been aware of studies that point to the way songs learned early in life often remain lodged in the minds that have otherwise been vacated. As a teacher of little kids, I know music helps move knowledge in that is hard to evict. So, guess what? I sing a lot in class.

Dan Gurney said...

Hi Mark, Hey, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. It's good to hear from you. I still remember that series you wrote about your dad in the Everglades. Be well.

Dan Gurney said...

Hi, TE. As much as I may have lifted the spirits of the Alzheimer's patients, I may have done more for my own spirits. Gawd, I love to sing!

Dan Gurney said...

Hi, Sarah Lulu, thanks for swinging by and leaving a comment. How's things down under? I'll have to swing by Normal to see how it's been. Good to hear from you.

Dan Gurney said...

steven, in my blogger profile I identify homemade music as my favorite kind. It is. There's something about the music that comes out of your own body that makes it extra moving. My music isn't "good" compared to a lot of music makers out there, but it is MY music. Same for sports: I don't play baseball like the Giants, but it's more fun when I swing the bat.

The cool thing about singing and playing with others is that we create the music together and hold that wondrousness together. So good.