Finding Out I Did Much of It Right

Publication: Senior Zone online

Author / Writer: Gertrude O’Leary Wambach


Dear Family,

This letter is meant to be a sort of update on current events for me, and filling you all in on what I am doing. My usual activities, walking, water exercise, writing class, helping with Communion Service on Sunday morning, visiting residents now in a nursing facility once a week, continue. This past week we started back to our Bible Study. We discontinued for the summer. This session, we are studying the Psalms. This will be a busy week for me catching up because I missed the second class on Friday, October 12th. I was invited by my friend Marsha who is a journalist for the San Diego Union-Tribune, to go with her to an all day conference titled, Meeting the Challenges of Dementia Care. The conference was presented by the Alzheimer’s Association. It was intended for caregivers, both family and professional.

Although one of the speakers was Leon Thal, M.D. Director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, UCSD and several other titles, the focus was not on medical treatment but more symptoms and diagnosis. He showed videos of interviews with patients and their family caregivers. As I understand it, there is still no definitive diagnosis for Alzheimer’s and it is still a matter of a brain autopsy after death. It seems that there are ever-changing theories about cause and actual onset. Of course, I am over-simplifying this because of my layman’s limitations in absorbing so much information. Also, there are so very many kinds of dementia, and some of the same symptoms occur in each of them. There was description and slides showing “tangles” and “plaque” which for a while was considered indicative of Alzheimer’s but now they have discovered that there are brains which contain the “tangles” and “plaque” where the person did not demonstrate the symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

The first speaker was Lela Knox Shanks who cared for her husband for fourteen years in their home. She had the support of her children and professional caregivers. She is a tiny lady who is full of creative ideas for coping in that situation. She has written a book, Your Name is Hughes Hannibal Shanks; A Caregiver’s Guide to Alzheimer’s.

David Snowdon, PhD is the person who has conducted the nun’s study and written a book titled, Aging with Grace. As a child, he was familiar with a nun’s life because his parents were often responsible for transporting nuns. At that time, nuns did not drive cars and depended on parents of their students to get around.

The rationale for the study was that he had a community of people who lived similar lives. An additional advantage and consideration was that each of the nuns when they entered the convent was required to write an autobiography. It was an invaluable resource to have that information because once people are being evaluated for Alzheimer’s it is not possible to get their past history since memory loss is one of the first signs of the disease. Dr. Snowden said that they insisted on the handwritten papers so that there would be no possibility of changes having been made. One of the things that they have determined from this study is the strong possibility that early stimulation and education might deter development of the disease. However, in one family, there were three sisters who entered the convent. One of them was the oldest living nun in the group (still standing) and two of the younger one’s had contracted Alzheimer’s, each at a different level.

The last speaker was Barbara L. Reuer, PhD, founder and director of MusicWorx of California. Her topic was Bringing Life Quality through Music into Families with Alzheimer’s. This was the most exciting part of the program for me.

I have always known, instinctively, that music can be the last avenue of communication with a person who is separated from us mentally. It had never been explained to me why that is. We saw the most incredible demonstrations (video) where people would “come back to themselves” when involved in a musical activity. There are two examples that are outstanding.

A woman who had been a concert violinist and was not able to function in her normal capacity, was handed a violin. When the therapist played certain chords on the piano, she would begin playing complicated music. In another example, a woman was in a coma and the therapist suggested to the daughter who wanted so much to have some communication with her mother, that she research the music that was popular when her mother was eighteen to twenty-six. The daughter did this and visited her mother and got down next to her ear and started singing those songs. Her mother opened her eyes and said, “Dear, you’re not singing that right.” Now isn’t that just like a mother? But the fact is that her family had a couple of days communicating with her before she died. Of course, maybe she would have become conscious in any case, but it does seem like very strong evidence to me that the music was instrumental.

When one of my aunts was in her last days and did not know any of us, she would join in when we sang the old songs she knew and loved. When I visited a friend who was losing touch, she could not enter into a conversation or answer a question, but when I sang the songs she knew, she joined in with the words and the melody. She did this a day or so before she died.

When my father was at home in bed with oxygen not long before he died, he joined in with harmony when I was singing my children to sleep in a room across the hall. I often tell the story of my daughter, Gretchen, who was not interested in talking until after she was two years old. I might add that once she started, she never stopped. When I sang to my children at bedtime, I would ask them which song they would like me to sing. Gretchen would not say the name of the song but would hum the tune.

When I spoke with one of the therapists who was conducting the presentation, I asked the question, “Why is it that music stays with us when other means of communication have ceased to work?” She said, “Music is a whole brain activity and if one part of the brain is unable to process it, another part can make the connection.”

The closing of the conference was a panel of family caregivers who talked about their coping strategies. There were five people, each from a different ethnic background.

Now, you may ask, why are you telling us all this? Strange as it may seem, I derived much comfort and sustenance from what I heard and learned. So much of the time I have been conscious of what I was not able to give to each child because there were seven. In some cases I have been informed of my failings in that regard. The consensus of this information said that reading to children, exposing them to music and encouraging intellectual pursuits, good diet and exercise is the best insurance that they will lead to mentally and physically healthy lives. Even with Matthew who is deaf, I sat each evening with a book and told the story and worked on words. We used pan covers and spoons to introduce rhythm and music. He later decided he wanted to study percussion and did that for a period of time.

It was stressed in each facet of this presentation, that it is the basic elements that count and, of course, as Lela Knox Shanks wrote when she signed my book, “It’s really all about love.” I did all that.   [ end ]


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