Reaching an aging relative in mental decline can be a tall order, but Ellie Lauter found the secret that reconnected her with her grandmother.
The day I started kindergarten was the day we put my grandma into a senior home. Soon we had become part of the small core of "regular visitors," those who visited even on days that weren't holidays. As I grew up, my grandma's memory slowly disappeared.
During our weekly visits, I was vividly aware of the impact my grandma's decline had on my mother. I remember seeing my mom flinch when my grandma just couldn't place her. I remember how quiet the front seat seemed as I watched my dad reach out and squeeze my mom’s hand on our drive home after visits. We all struggled to communicate with my grandma, but eventually, I found the way I could always get her to hear me: music.
My grandma had always loved opera, musicals, and jazz, and I love to sing and perform. So on our Sunday visits, we sang through Fiddler on the Roof and The Music Man and worked through Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Gershwin. I attempted Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and more successfully mastered Audrey Hepburn’s "Moon River”. My mom recalled my grandma's favorite pop songs, and I discovered the pure tones of Karen Carpenter. I learned that, like my grandma, I favored Paul over John as we sang through the Beatles hits. The cruelly remarkable part of my grandma's illness is that although she rarely remembers her children's names, she can still perfectly hum the overture to Oklahoma. As she sings along, tightly clutching my hand, it’s as if we're trying to retrace her steps through the melodies to find something important that she left behind.
One visit, we sang the last phrase of our favorite song together: "Please don't take my sunshine away." After, she turned to me and said, "Ellie, I love you so much." I was amazed. I couldn't remember the last time she said my name. That interaction showed me that love endures even when so much else is stripped away. Although dementia has taken away her memories, my grandma will continue to hold on to what has always mattered to her most: music and how much she loves her family.