The Power of Music and Memories in The Journey Through Dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease

Music Memories Dementia Alzheimer's DiseaseI’ve always tracked time through music. I can hear a song and go back with photographic accuracy and precision to the exact time, the exact place, the exact month, and the exact year that I either first heard it or when it made such an impact on me that I’ll never forget it.

Usually these jaunts will prompt me to walk back through other times and places in my life – perhaps to test my own cognition – to see if I still remember them with the same level of accuracy with regard to details and precision (even down to wallpaper and house layouts in each of the many houses we lived in growing up). So far, so good.

But yesterday afternoon I heard a song that took me back to almost five years ago – July 12, 2010, to be exact – and hit me with the same effect it did when I heard it that morning.

Unexpected tears began to fall as I relived that memory and the memory I relived that day that took me even further back in time, way before dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease came to take my mom and me through its journey together.

On Sunday, July 11, 2010, in the very wee hours of the morning, my mom had the psychotic meltdown that would land her in a geriatric psychiatric hospital for almost two weeks and that would give me the grim diagnosis that she was in the mid-to-late stages of vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.

When my phone rang at 7:15 a.m. that Sunday morning, I already knew it was about Mama. The week before had been insane – with wild and dramatic mood swings, mostly negative, with each one getting more dire, and out-of-the-ballpark suspicion and paranoia – so I knew we were coming to a point where something was going to break.

Quite frankly, I wasn’t sure it wasn’t going to be me first. I was restless, anxious, unable to sleep that Saturday night, and as I paced and prayed, I kept telling God He needed to do something because there was nothing left that I could do to help Mama.

And He answered those prayers. I wasn’t at all surprised when the voice on the other end of that early morning call identified herself as someone from one of the psychiatric hospitals in the area. She said that Mama had been brought into the emergency room around 3:30 that morning (Mama had called 911) and they had determined that she needed to go to the only geriatric psychiatric hospital in the area. 

The lady on the phone ask me if it was okay to involuntarily commit Mama. I said the only thing I knew to say at that point: “Absolutely.”

She then told me the procedure for going over and changing it to a voluntary commitment by me, told me what to pack for her, and told me that Mama would be there by early afternoon.

I hung up, surprised, but not surprised, my mind racing about what I needed to do that day and what I was looking at needing to do within the next couple of weeks. It was all a little overwhelming, but I tackled the tangible stuff first that I didn’t have to think about.

I went over to Mama’s apartment in the independent retirement community she had decided to move to, without ever discussing it with me, five years earlier. I opened the door and decided to pack the bag I needed for her, clean up, and make sure there was nothing pressing I needed to take care of.

I packed Mama’s bag, labeling all her clothes so that they wouldn’t disappear. Then I decided to clean the apartment, make her bed, and do a thorough inspection of everything.

In the midst of cleaning (the refrigerator, which I tried to keep an eye on, but which I’d not been able to since she had pretty much banned me from her apartment the last couple of weeks before that, made me wonder how she had not killed herself with some of the science experiments that were in there), I found a notebook that she’d accused me of stealing two days before, hidden behind the only place I did not look when searching for it the day she told me that I’d better leave because she’d called the police to come and arrest me.

I shook my head as tears rolled down my cheek for my mom. I found a couple of bills that needed to be paid, so I took them home to pay. I knew even then that she would not be able to come back to that apartment to live, so I got on her computer and sent emails to her friends and let them know she wouldn’t be back on (no details), then unplugged the cable modem (I had been paying for her internet service) to take back to the cable company the next day.

Once everything was clean, I got Mama’s bag and her purse and the important papers I needed, and anything else valuable to take with me, and left to do the rest of what needed to be done that day.

The next morning, Monday, April 12, 2010, I began the day’s to-do list with returning the cable modem and stopping the service for Mama and having that taken off my bill. Everything was still surreal, although I was going through the motions, taking care of the things I could before the first visit I could have with Mama at noon.

On the way back from the cable company, I turned on the radio and this song came on:

Immediately, my mind went back to when I was little and Mama had the radio on all the time and we heard this song in the mix of the music that was played. I thought of those carefree days and when Mama was healthy and then all the music and summer days we’d had since then played like a movie through my memory.

Then I got to the present and I was sobbing. Not only for the past, but for the reality of the knowledge that we’d never be able to go back there again. I was crying for what we’d lost for good.

That was the song I heard yesterday. It took me right back to being in that car face-to-face with a new reality for Mama and me, reminding me again of that trip down memory lane that I had taken (and which I took again yesterday). And unexpected tears streamed down my face again.

I’ve had a hard time listening to “Mama” songs since her death. For the most part, I’ve avoided them like the plague because they evoke such a strong emotional/memory response in me and my mind and my heart get consumed with a grief I can’t stop and I can’t contain.

I don’t know exactly why this song prompted and prompts such a strong emotional reaction in me. There are no concrete, specific memories, other than the one five years ago, attached to it.

There are many other songs that I do have concrete and specific memories of Mama and me attached to: U2’s “In God’s Country,” The Commodores’ “Easy,” and Kenny Rogers’ “Lucille” are among them.

Maybe “Chrystal Blue Persuasion” is just a demarcation song for me and that is why it is so powerful. It encapsulates a childhood I miss, a mom who was at the top of her game, and a world and a time I’ll never have in again in this life. Maybe that’s all it is. And maybe that’s enough.

My advice? Embrace the music. Embrace the memories. And embrace the tears.

Because that means you had – and have – love.

And that is most precious thing we take, not just through, but beyond, this journey we walk through with our loved ones.



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