You Are My Sunshine"—we belt it out every Thursday evening, along with "The Sidewalks of New York," "A Bicycle Built for Two," "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," and many other old songs that we sang as children in school assemblies or around a campfire. The difference between this sing-along and others is that a majority of the participants have Alzheimer’s disease.
I live in a Quaker retirement center, and I am one of a group of eight or nine volunteers who sing once a week with Alzheimer’s patients living in the nursing wing of our community. The formation of our group grew out of two ideas. One is the conviction that singing the old songs, rich with memories, might touch some people for whom words have slipped out of reach.
The second belief is that people with Alzheimer’s, and most older people in fact, are not touched enough. Often our spouses have died, and our children and grandchildren live miles away. There’s no one to hug us! Forming a singing, touching group seemed worth a try.
When we approached the nurses and other caregivers of the small percentage of our population with Alzheimer’s, they were enthusiastic. "A good time for you to come would be in the early evening," they told us. "It’s a difficult time. The patients have eaten dinner and want to go to bed immediately. They need something to tempt them to stay awake."
On arriving the following Thursday, we found about a dozen people sitting in big chairs in the lounge. Some looked confused, some fidgeted. Others simply stared. A television set droned away, though no one seemed to be watching it.
We’d been told a little of the history of some of the patients. (For this article I’ve given them different names.) Sallie, sitting by the piano, taught kindergarten for 30 years. Now she cuddles and tends to the needs of a rag doll. Jack, sitting next to her, was a civil engineer. Tonight he sits drooling, with bits of his recent supper stuck to his bib. Then there’s Paul, a former lawyer, smiling and courtly. He appears so rational that I think he may be here by mistake—until he confides that he may have to leave early to pick up his mother and take her to the circus.
Our leader, a talented pianist, is a take-charge person in the good sense of the phrase. She immediately switched off the TV and announced with a smile, "We’re here to sing with you, so let’s get started." Then she sat down at the piano and swung right into "I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl Who Married Dear Old Dad."
At first there was little response from our group, but things livened up as we began to circulate. Each of us picked a patient, held his or her hands, and sang as we swayed in time to the music. It’s as close as you can get to dancing when one person is seated and the other standing. We change partners, being careful not to force our attentions on anyone. If a patient is too far withdrawn in his private world to respond, we may simply rest a hand lightly on his shoulder as we sing.
You must understand that there are no Frank Sinatras or Julie Andrews among our volunteer warblers. We’re lucky to have an enthusiastic man with a strong voice. He provides wonderful volume while the rest of us chime in as best we can. Our gifted pianist covers our mistakes and carries us triumphantly through.
As the weeks have gone by, there’s been a remarkable change in our group. People who had almost given up talking have begun to find words of the old songs buried deep inside. They look forward to our coming. They grasp our hands. They smile and cry and giggle. They tap their feet and clap their hands. At times their faces light up with something curiously like joy. A quiet love is palpable in the room. We create it together.
Quakers believe that there is the spirit of God in every person. When brain cells begin to die, what happens to this spirit? Since it is a particle of God, can it be destroyed? I believe it lingers somewhere, perhaps only waiting to be spoken to. Every Thursday I hold hands with a dear old woman who recently lost her husband after more than 60 years of marriage. She was a vibrant Quaker before I’d ever heard of George Fox. I look at her and she looks at me, her large eyes moist and beseeching. Somehow, we connect.
Our "signature song," which we sing last, is really meant for children. I know neither the name of the song nor the composer, but the words go like this:
Now run along home and jump into bed,
Say your prayers and cover your head,
The very same thing I say unto you,
"You dream of me and I’ll dream of you."
After the song we go around the room, saying goodnight to everyone, calling them by name and assuring them that we’ll be back next Thursday.
When the singing is over, I walk back to my apartment. Now that it’s late fall, the skies are dark. I am tired. Singing and clapping and waltzing in place for an hour are hard on the old joints. But I am happy.
I look up at the skies, hoping for a glimpse of the moon or at least a familiar star. I look up to thank God for the grace of the Divine presence in the most distressing circumstances. If the course of my own life leads eventually to senility, I’m sure that God will be with me. And if I’m lucky, I’ll be able to remember "You Are My Sunshine."