Holiday visits to loved ones with dementia can be as unpredictable as the winter weather. Not that long ago, my friend was recovering from heart surgery at a nearby acute care facility, where I was able to visit him every day or so. Now, he’s in a beautiful assisted living residence community quite a distance away, a residence community that was wisely chosen by his family because of his quickly growing need for advanced dementia care. Each time I see him, I'm never quite sure how he will be. Sometimes he's happy, talkative and mischievous. Other times, he seems stuck in an agitated, "one-track record" of a single thought or complaint.
I have known him for 35 years. My friend—I’ll call him Jim—was a huge part of my life for many years, with our main roots formed in our church choir, where he and I sang blessed songs together for decades. His unmatched voice had spent years serving in the Cantor role at our church, and we shared a deep love for all types of music—everything from Debussy and Rachmaninoff, to simple Christmas carols.
In short, Jim is a life-long music guru—and music still reaches him, despite the growing effects of his dementia. So, on the occasions when I can visit him, we sing. Sometimes I just sing by myself for a while, and maybe he eventually joins in. When he does join in, he still remembers every word and every note. I cherish those moments, because I know that his current memory of those notes and lyrics will not last forever.
Whenever I hear the lyrics to “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” I will hear them in Jim’s clear baritone voice. It’s just a fact for me.
I wish I knew what else to do.
I wish I could “fix” him and make it all like it was before.
But I also know that isn’t possible.
So we just sing together, Jim and I—and we enjoy the moments whenever our harmonies happen to match. And when they don’t match, we enjoy the participation factor anyway.
My holiday message to readers is this: Go there. Make a visit. Sing songs. Draw or paint or play with model trains. Do whatever seems appropriate, even if it doesn't make sense to you.
The main thing is, just VISIT.