I began finding my place in dementia care when I was ten years old. At this age, I would often play my violin for a memory care facility that my mom worked at. One day, as I played, I began to hear a woman try to vocalize. After my performance, the nurses in the unit explained to me that this lady had been a former opera singer that had not spoken in months. I thought it was amazing that I had provoked a breakthrough in this woman's journey, but I later learned that it wasn't me, but rather music, that was responsible for this action.
With the generous help of Dr. Rhonna Shatz, director of memory disorders at the University of Cincinnati, as a sophomore in high school, I was able to form Musical Memories. Musical Memories, later coined The Dementia Project, is a musical outreach group that, with the help of small percussion instruments, aims to illicit a therapeutic experience in those with dementia. The first time Musical Memories performed, we were able to see how this disease affected the residents. We walked in the room to blank stares and many people asleep---quite an odd contrast to our usual high school audience. But as we played, their eyes became alert. We saw feet tapping, mouths singing, and most of all, their familiar smiles re-entering my life. After the music portion of our visit, we spent time making crafts and speaking to the residents. I had such an amazing conversation with one resident in particular, Miss. Charlotte, a conversation spent laughing and connecting (while making a thanksgiving-themed collage). I felt like I had known her my whole life, it was so sad to walk away from this woman. I could have spoken to her all night.
When we returned to the nursing home the following week, I saw her, but I wasn't met with the kind smile I had remembered. Instead, I was greeted with glossy eyes and clearly no remembrance of me. This hurt, and for the first time of many, I felt a fraction of what the families and caregivers feel each day. Questions flooded my head: how could the merciful God we learn about in school allow this to happen? How could a perfectly kind person not be able to remember the names of the kids they have spent their life caring for? What is the point of living an intentional life if you can grow old and not be able to look back on it?
The only thing I knew how to do at that point, was to immerse myself into the disease to try to answer these questions. This involved going to seminars, talking to medical professionals, interviewing the caregivers of loved ones with dementia, and later majoring in Neuroscience.
Even though many questions remain unanswered, there are some core truths:
1. There is a proven response in the brain to music, a response that has the power to deliver lucid and joyful moments.
2. The pockets of joy that we are able to experience in this dark disease speak louder than any uncertainties we may encounter.
3. We have the opportunity to listen to these strong men and women and to remember their stories. This way, for as long as they forget, we will always remember them.
Thank you, Miss. Charlotte.