As Alzheimer’s disease lowers its veil over my father, one of the few ways to penetrate through his fog is music. Luckily, he prepared for that decades ago by encouraging my love of singing. As a child, I was classically trained as an opera singer. My career took me in the direction of words rather than music, so these days I sing just for friends and family, which has turned out to be surprisingly useful in connecting with my father.
Until recently my octogenarian parents, who live five hours away from me in an independent living community, were on lockdown, so I haven’t seen them since last November. But I call them all the time.
His illness seems to be getting worse; recently he asked my mom when they were getting together with his long-dead parents. Although he sometimes confuses me with my sister, he remembers my voice. Not my speaking voice — my singing voice.
Over the phone, I sing the chorus from his favorite song. “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are gray. You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.” “Your voice sounds beautiful,” he says. “Thank you, Estelle. I love you.”
Studies have shown that musical memories of old favorite songs engage broader neural pathways than other types of memories, allowing people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia to feel the emotions connected with those memories. “The 36-Hour Day,” a popular guide for people caring for those with dementia, notes that researchers have found that the brain stores and processes memories of emotions differently than memories of fact. Research in the journal Brain found that daily exposure to long-known music can even improve cognitive outcomes in some Alzheimer’s patients.
Before Alzheimer’s ravaged his mind, my dad was the patriarch of our family, a business executive, used to managing people. During my childhood, he would take our family to concerts at Jones Beach Theater and shows on Broadway. By enrolling me in classical music, and later opera lessons, my parents encouraged my love of singing. I sang in the school choir, in camp plays, and later in competitions. When we’d vacation with my grandparents in the Catskills, my dad would convince the entertainment director to let me sing a song with the band. His eyes lit up when I took the stage.
Now, the disease has taken away his memory, and erased his independence. My parents moved to a facility with memory care in August, where my mom has her own apartment. Someone checks on Dad hourly, and he’s no longer in control of his daily schedule. An aide helps him shower, dress, hands him his medication, and makes sure he sleeps. It is rare if he can remember what he just ate for lunch.
Before I started singing to him, phone calls with Dad followed the same well-worn script. “Hi, Dad, how are you?” “Coming along. Scary times. We can’t go out. Can you go out?”
Dad would ask about my husband and our 11-year-old daughter, but struggling for her name, sometimes referred to her as “the big baby.”
As the months of quarantine dragged on, I worried that he might not remember who I was when he saw me again. Desperate to reach him, unable to touch him, I videotaped myself singing “Summertime” from the show “Porgy and Bess,” the same song I sang to my daughter when she was born, and posted it on Facebook.
“One of these mornings. You’re gonna rise up singing. Then you’ll spread your wings, and you’ll take the sky. But ’til that mornin’ there’s a nothing can harm you. With daddy and mammy standing by.” Mom told me dad smiled with recognition when he saw the video. “That’s Estelle,” he said. Encouraged by his reaction, I made it more personal by singing songs to him over the phone.
In between visits with my mother, my dad receives physical therapy to help straighten his limping gait (from breaking his hip nearly a decade ago while bowling). He also joins the other residents on his floor for socially distanced walks in the courtyard, to watch movies, and for Music & Memory classes. And we have our phone calls.
I ring him during the day, avoiding the “sundowning” hours of late afternoon and evening, when many Alzheimer’s patients tend to become disoriented and confused. He used to give me requests, as if I were a D.J., but now he lets me choose the songs. We’ve covered show tunes, “Sunrise, Sunset,” “Climb Every Mountain,” and children’s songs like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and even dad’s favorite funny song, “Camp Granada,” Allan Sherman’s ode to sleep-away camp. “Hello muddah, hello faddah. Here I am at Camp Granada. Camp is very entertaining. And they say we’ll have some fun if it stops raining.”
My daughter’s sleep-away camp was canceled this summer. Instead, we spent time at the beach — and it flooded me with childhood memories of family excursions. One day as I strolled on the sand with my daughter, watching the ebb and flow of the tide, I flashed on the joy I’d felt jumping the undulating waves together with dad, his hand holding mine tight.
On our last call, I told dad how much I loved those carefree times from childhood. “I’m sorry, Estelle, I don’t remember,” he said, his voice cracking. “I forget a lot of things.” “That’s OK, dad.” I was upset, too, that a memory so dear to me had unspooled from Dad’s mind. But I knew how to bring him back. “Want to hear a song?” “Sure,” he replied. I chose “Summertime.” The irony is not lost on me that I’m singing the same song for Dad — at the end of his life — that I sang for my daughter at the beginning of hers. But singing to Dad isn’t an investment in the future, it’s an homage to the past.
“Summertime. And the livin’ is easy. Fish are jumpin’. And the cotton is high. Oh, your daddy’s rich and your ma is good lookin’. So, hush little baby. Don’t you cry.”
“Jones Beach, right? We saw a show,” he said, as tears pooled in my eyes. “Yes, Daddy, that’s right.” For a moment we share the same space in our minds, though it’s only as temporary as the memory occupying his.
The future during a pandemic is uncertain for everyone, especially a man with a damaged brain, whose body is starting to shut down in the throes of his disease.
So as I face the finality of losing my dad, I will hold on to him as long as I can, with music as our guiding force and new language. Song will let us linger in his past, until the wave of Alzheimer’s overtakes us both.
Estelle Erasmus is working on a novel and a memoir. She is on Twitter at @EstelleSErasmus