Tuning into Music for Connection:  Helping Children Accept Dementia

“Oh what a beautiful morning,” I warbled. My mom clapped and hummed along. At the end of the song, she applauded.  In her earlier days of motherhood, she might have winced slightly when I wandered off-key. But in the cradle of dementia, she was delighted with my smile, my energy, and the sheer sound of my voice. And I was delighted to be tuning into music for connection.

Carol Bradley Bursack, an author, speaker,  family care partner and creator of Minding Our Elders, recently told me the story of how she helped her teenage children stay connected with their grandfather. I loved her ideas and wanted to share her tips with you.

Tuning into Music for Connection 

When he was in his 70s, Carol’s father went into surgery to help repair brain damage from a World War II injury. The doctors expected no issues, but during the operation, something went awry. Her beloved father emerged from the procedure deep in dementia, with a constant voice in his head, and no grasp of reality. Valiantly, Carol dealt with her anger and grief while finding a safe and compassionate care community for her father. Then she began searching out ways she and her sons could stay connected with him.

“Dad loved big band music,” Carol says. “I bought every CD I could find. He loved to direct and listen to the music.”

Finding a Musical Bridge

Carol’s sons were very close to their grandfather. He had always been there for them, a vibrant, fun presence, celebrating their abilities, playing chess with them, and listening to their stories. When her sons saw that Grandfather was so changed he couldn’t even hug them and no longer understood the chessboard, they were devastated.

“They didn’t know how to bond with him,” Carol says.

Carol understood their reluctance to visit and gave them some space. She didn’t make the children feel guilty about their feelings, but she did want them to maintain a relationship with their grandfather. Tuning into music for connection came to the rescue.

The boys both played instruments and Carol urged them to take their clarinet and trumpet to the care community. At first, they were hesitant. They stood shyly before this new grandfather, barely able to blow out the notes. But at the end of their first short tune, Grandfather beamed and asked for an encore. The boys grinned and played more confidently. People came from down the hallways, wanting to hear the music.

“The boys and their music had made a connection,” Carol says. “All three of them were happy and relaxed.”

Creating Together to Build Connection

Carol continued to seek ways to help her sons feel comfortable during their visits. She also wanted them to feel a sense of accomplishment and to cherish their relationship with their grandfather.

Sometimes the boys took hand-drawn pictures to decorate the walls. Other times, they showed up with examples of science projects and told their grandpa about them. The boys brought chess pieces, old photos from Grandpa’s younger days, and games that they’d played with Grandpa. They invited their grandfather to share stories about these objects and often he did.

“It’s hard for young minds to accept such changes,” Carol says. “Their grief can slide under the radar. I was constantly looking for activities we could share, projects that were mutually engaging and that Grandpa could understand.”

Through it all, their mutual love of music kept them together.

For more information on the important work Carol is doing, visit her website: www.mindingourelders.com.

And treat yourself to her book, Minding Our Elders.

Deborah Shouse is the author of Connecting in the Land of Dementia: Creative Activities to Explore Together and Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.

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