It felt like I’d walked a mile from the parking lot before finally reaching Millie’s room at the end of a very long hall in the long-term care facility where she resided. Of course, carrying a 15-pound portable keyboard in a case complete with extra batteries, a foot pedal, assorted music, an iPad, protective gloves, cleaning wipes and hand sanitizer (this was pre-Covid) certainly didn’t help lighten the load. Colleagues would often ask, “Why not use a guitar, it’s SO much lighter and you can strap it on your back like a backpack?”
As a pianist since childhood, I’ve always preferred utilizing keyboard instruments in my music therapy work. Although perhaps considered “old school” by some, for me the piano keyboard better accommodates the wide-ranging musical styles enjoyed by my clients. Whether it’s Broadway show tunes, a Beethoven sonata or classics from the 1930s-40s, for me, replicating their musical complexities in an authentic way would be challenging if limited to my basic guitar skills.
Millie was 68 years young when we met. She’d been diagnosed with early onset dementia a few years prior to our meeting, but as an only child of parents who died many years before in an accident, Millie was placed in a skilled nursing facility when she could no longer care for herself. She resided in a small room, with a roommate, their bed areas separated with a curtain. Millie hadn’t won the “window lottery,” so when the curtain was drawn, her corner of the room was rather dimly lit with just a lamp on a bedside table. I rarely found her anywhere other than in bed, as her ability to move about independently had diminished over time. However, she did have a companion she loved dearly.
On Millie’s lap dwelt a small stuffed dog, most closely resembling a Bichon Frise, though more oatmeal in color, resting on his belly, head up, as if awaiting a treat. She spoke to him, addressing him with different names at different times, patiently awaiting his responses that only she could hear. She petted him, snuggled him and clearly experienced tremendous comfort in his gentle, good-natured company. Each time I’d visit, Millie informed me of what she and her friend had enjoyed doing together prior to my arrival. Naturally, singing, “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?” was a favorite that inspired her beautiful smile every single time. And so, this is typically how each music therapy session with Millie began.
One of the things that caused Millie anxiety, however, was wondering where her parents were. She no longer recalled that they died many years before this, so her bewilderment over why they weren’t visiting caused her distress at times. Since repeatedly reminding her of the deaths led to repeated confusion and grief, I helped her refocus by asking about happy times they spent together living on the east coast of Florida, very near the beach. Millie especially loved when I’d sing “Marianne,” a lighthearted song with a Calypso beat, composed in the mid 1940s by Roaring Lion. Often she'd sway and sing the chorus along with me. Some of the lyrics went like this:
“All day, all night, Marianne, down by the seaside siftin’ sand.
Even little children love Marianne, down by the seaside siftin’ sand.
When she walks along the shore, people pause to greet,
White birds fly around her, little fish come to her feet.
In her heart is love, but I’m the only mortal man
Who’s allowed to kiss my Marianne.”
This song unfailingly prompted Millie to recall happy childhood beach walks taken with her parents, where inevitably she’d find seashells to add to her collection. Millie expressed her enjoyment of babysitting neighborhood children during her high school years. In fact, it was on a beach visit with a child she was babysitting where Millie met the man she fell in love with. She described him as her best friend. She added, “we never married, even though he asked me.” Millie’s recollection of what was possibly a disappointment or regret, her impaired memory, or a combination of the two seemed to prevent her from going any further with her story. Although, it never appeared to sadden her. In fact, it was as if she was fixed in that time period, with the happiest memories of her life.
There was one instance, while speaking about her “boyfriend,” that she remembered him calling her his “special angel.” She said, “there’s a song he sang to me about a special angel, do you know it? I asked if she was referring to “You Are My Special Angel,” by Bobby Vinton, and proceeded to sing a bit of it. Millie immediately nodded her head and smiled, affirming that was indeed the song. The next time we visited together, I played/sang the full song, much to her delight. This seemed to elicit a flood of additional tender remembrances, and Millie chose to bask in them as they ebbed and flowed as the waves upon the seashore of her memory.
(Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals)