I once got to meet a man in hospice whose wife was also his caregiver. He was suffering from dementia, which at times made him agitated and difficult to deal with. Although she knew it would be a challenge, his wife, a nurse, was determined to keep him at home as long as possible. To help ease his mood swings, the hospice called me, a music therapist, to hold sessions in the couple’s home.
When I first met the man, he had just been sedated and was dozed off in his recliner. To give me an idea of his musical background and preferences, his wife showed me his CD collection and their Bose stereo system, which her husband loved. I began singing some verses, but the man would not wake up. Instead, I left some CDs with his wife for her to play whenever he became aggressive. We agreed that I should schedule my visits earlier in the day when he would most likely still be awake.
“Therapy doesn’t have to be talk-based; there are some modalities, like music therapy and art therapy, that can help you get those in tune with those emotions without having to cough them up verbally.” –Hannah Goodman, LMHC
I had better luck during my second visit, as he was awake on his bed, which they had placed in the living room. I began by singing a few songs from different genres, observing his reactions. I sang verses of band music (no reaction), gospel hymns (still nothing), and country (try again). I finally got his attention when I sang “Home on the Range” — he even began singing along. His wife, who had never heard him sing, was surprised. I proceeded to try more folk music: “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain,” “You Are My Sunshine,” and “The Crawdad Song.” He knew each song by heart, and we were delighted to make a breakthrough.
The following sessions fell into a pattern: she and I would sit on opposite sides of his bed, then he and I would sing a few dozen songs which he knew and remembered. She and I would ask him questions to help him recall some memories. We discovered that “School Days” brought back stories of walking to the country school in the snow while “Home on the Range” would bring up all kinds of tales about living and working in Kansas. I took note of the times when he became distracted or started getting agitated, and changed the music to get him back on track. I also found ways to encourage interaction between the couple. She once held his hand while they looked into each other’s eyes as we sang “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” To spark loving memories between them, I learned the songs that they played at their wedding. Though he didn’t remember them well enough to sing along, my renditions gave them more time to reconnect as two sweethearts.
“Through the counseling process, couples find ways to improve their level of relationship satisfaction, sometimes they can also identify obstacles or characteristics that are too much to bear for either person or for the relationship to overcome.” –Dana Baduna, PhD, LMFT
His wife was delighted to know that he really could sing and seemed to enjoy it. The music also helped him to enjoy being with his wife again. In fact, even though he often didn’t recognize his wife during their daily activities, he seemed to remember who she was whenever we would have our music sessions. He even started recognizing me whenever I walked in the door, even if he couldn’t remember my name.
However, things took a turn for the worse as his disease progressed. Our sessions became shorter as he struggled to stay awake. His wife found it more and more difficult to attend to him and brought in extra help from a private duty company. Her kids spent more nights in the living room so that she could get some sleep in her own bed. Everyone’s patience got stretched to the limit. Still, every week during our music therapy session, the two of them would be a couple again. He would remember her, and she held his hand, and at least for a while, everyone could smile.
Long-term caregiving can be such a struggle, filled with grief, frustration, and physical exhaustion. The relationships between a husband and wife, a mother and daughter, or between a father and son change because of this disease. But through the power of music, the beauty and goodness of relationships can shine through again. The caregiver and ward can spend time together, with less pressure and stress. There can be moments of laughter, sighs of relief, or even heartfelt affirmations of love.
Doesn’t that make it worthwhile? “Many times I have heard couples say, “We know what’s wrong, but we just don’t know how to fix it.”. This is a perfect time to get a third party involved. If a couple is stuck, a skilled clinician may be able to get them moving in the right direction.” Donna M. White, LMHC, CACP said.
How has music impacted your relationship as a caregiver with your loved one? How have you seen music therapy affect others’ relationships? Please leave your comment below.