The ElderSparks Jazz Ensemble held its first rehearsal this week. I was pretty pleased with the results, considering that our raw talent consisted of: yours truly, known for having zero musical ability; my colleague Cynthia who is just being humble when she describes herself in similar terms; J~, a stroke patient who is speech impaired, physically disabled, and still in recovery — like so many of us — from a grade school music teacher who said he couldn’t sing; S~, also wheelchair-bound, with serious hearing loss; and L~, a newcomer with the sweetest smile, a twinkle in her eye, and a deeply resonant voice that belies her frail appearance. Our instruments included bells, a flute, xylophone, tambourine, crystal bowl, seed rattle, and portable, electronic keyboard whose programmed jazz tempo was our saving grace.

After singing Happy Birthday to S~ (only to find out she was three weeks early on the date), we held hands in a circle and rang a bell in remembrance of E~, an ElderSparks regular who died last month. Despite the physical pain she was often in, she brought a loving energy to our group: hearts were her favorite graphic.

When it came time to pick an instrument, J~ chose the xylophone, impressing everyone with the crossed-grip technique he instinctively used to hold the mallets in his working hand.

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S~ was drawn to the tambourine.

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Later, she took to the xylophone and mallets as if she had been playing a drum set all her life.

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L~ was so weak she could barely hold a hand bell.

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Since she had such a beautiful voice, we tried encouraging her to make a sound or repeat a word or phrase in time with the music. The conversation that ensued was both comical and almost painful in its miscommunication, a perfect example of how easily the best intentions go astray when speaking with an Alzheimer’s or dementia patient. (I kept thinking we were caught in a variation on the “Who’s on first?” joke):

Cynthia: Do you have a favorite word? A word you like? What’s a really nice word?

L~: I don’t know.

Me: How about “love”?”

L~: Oh wow.

Me: Is that a word you like, “love?”

L~: Well. [Followed by silence.]

Me: OK, can you say, “love”?

L~: Love?

Me: Yes, that’s all you need to do, that will be your part.

L~: Then they’re lucky.

Cynthia and me: Yes, we’re all lucky.

Me: You say the word “love” over and over again. So that when I point to you, you say, “love, love, love, love, love.” OK, can we try it? [I gesture in her direction.]

L~ (almost trancelike): I will try.

Me: OK, let’s try: say, “love.” [Extending my arm like a conductor.] Love? 

L~: [Silence]

Me: Or would you like to say your name?

L~: No.

Me: Would you like to say, “no”?

L~: [Nods head].

Me [laughing]: “Yes”? That’s a nice word: “no,” is very short but “yes” is more positive.

L~: I’m going to try.

Me: OK, what word are you going to say? Pick a word. It can be anything.

L~: I shall.

Cynthia: That’s a nice phrase, that’s a beautiful phrase.

Me: OK, can you say, “I shall”?

L~: Why not?

General laughter.

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It got more raucous but I’ve decided that those passages aren’t quite yet ready for prime time. Perhaps in two weeks when we’ve had more practice.

As the others jammed, I asked L~ if I could have this dance. With some difficulty she stood up and placed her hand on my shoulder. We slow danced for maybe half a minute or so before she had to sit again. It was very sweet, like revisiting a precious moment from the past. In another effort to keep her engaged, I stood behind her chair and gently tapped on her head and shoulders as if I were playing an instrument. She didn’t seem to mind. Indeed, when Cynthia brought her back to her room, L~ turned to her with a big smile and said: “I didn’t know what to expect but I enjoyed that.”

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