One of my favourite practices this time of year is doing music in our local long- term care home, Port Perry Place. It all started the first Christmas Nanny Gross wasn’t physically able to leave the building for our family celebrations. So, we decided to go to her, first thing on Christmas morning, and bring her the gift of music, specifically seasonal carols. Now some twenty years later, our music-making spills into the lives of most of the residents and staff. Like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, a group of family and friends move from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, a motley crew of singers and instrumentalists.
When Nan was alive, I made sure we parked her and her wheelchair close to the piano. She sat slumped in a catatonic stupor in her chair. Vascular dementia threatened regular blood flow in Nan’s brain, causing a series of mini-strokes that affected her thought processes. Each Christmas morning, the music woke her up. Every musical phrase seemed to cobble her preserved self back together. It was as if music was a magic key, unlocking the stolen treasure trove of her precious memories and selfhood, giving them back to her and to us if even for a few moments.
It was like that for my friend Judy’s mom too. She had been a night club singer and knew all the seasonal riffs. While she couldn’t remember what she had for breakfast, or Judy’s name, once a tune started, she would come alive, stand in her performing stance, an imaginary microphone in hand, twinkle in her eye and break into song. She knew every word and performed with ease and musical nuance. She was effervescent. She was on stage. She delivered. Judy is also part of our merry-making musical troupe.
Last year, my mother-in-law, Elma, was part of our group. She lives in the secure area at Port Perry Place and travelled along with us as we sang to and with her friends and neighbours. Elma quite confidently sang along in both English and French. Singing Christmas carols seemed to transcend her advancing Alzheimer’s Disease. Embedded deeply in her neural pathways are seasonal songs basted in meaningful, cultural practices, rife with powerful emotions, unscathed by The Atrophyer.
I’m looking forward to Dec 25 this year for a lot of reasons, mostly to watch three, maybe four generations of Fosters make music together, a timeless tradition of voices, fiddles, harmony, and Christmas cheer. The joy is in the sharing.
Bev Foster is the Executive Director of Room 217 Foundation.