Music can touch a soul darkened by Alzheimer’s.


Stephen Woodfin and a harmonica player who is the late stages of AD.
Stephen Woodfin and a harmonica player who is the late stages of AD.

WHEN YOU GROW UP in small town East Texas, own a guitar and will play for free, you become a hot item. Rotary Clubs, Lions Clubs, Kiwanis Clubs, local churches, student talent shows will welcome you with open arms.

So for years, I made the mashed potato circuit, singing for my supper, playing both kinds of music, country and western.

Down through the years, I have played a lot of gigs at nursing homes. About fifteen years ago, however, I received my first invitation to play for an Alzheimer’s unit.

I have to admit that I was apprehensive about the event because I feared the residents would not be able to participate.

When the time came, I began playing old hymns that I believed many of the people in the audience would know.  The facility had hymnals, but these dear people had long ago lost the ability to make sense of written words on a page.

As I sang the first verse of the first song, the miracle happened.

Light came into the eyes of the residents and they began to sing with me, verse after verse, all the words by heart.

That experience changed my life.  It made me realize that my preconceptions about Alzheimer’s disease were just that, preconceived biases. I also realized that although Alzheimer’s is a thief and a liar, it doesn’t destroy the personhood of the one with the disease.  Rather, it changes them.

The man with the harmonica in the picture was in the late stages of AD when we played together.  He never lost the ability to play the harmonica beautifully by ear, even when he could no longer remember his name.

I won’t ever refer to AD as “the long good bye,” although I understand the sentiment behind the phrase. I watched my mother struggle with it for ten years.

I will refer to AD as “the change.”

The task before us is to learn to cherish and nurture what remains in the soul of each person with AD.

Please join me in the journey.

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