Integrity. That word has a lot do with truth and honesty, things that can get a bit murky in dementia care, as we work to validate feelings and honor the way a person with dementia views the world. At our recent Mission Breakfast event at Ebenezer, I was asked to prepare a story that related to Integrity, one of our five core Ebenezer values. To tell the truth (ahem), I wasn’t quite sure (at first) that I could spin the story I really wanted to tell (yes, I chose the story before being assigned the value) into being the perfect fit for the value of Integrity, but I believe I’ve come around!
Integrity in dementia care has lot to do with honoring and celebrating who each person is, at their core, connecting with their passions, skills, accomplishments and dreams.
At one of our sites there was a resident named June. She was British, and I learned she had had a career as an opera singer. I was so excited to meet her and so hoping I could get her interested in the arts project I was involved in at her site -- using Shakespeare, Poetry and Music to engage residents and stimulate their memories around the theme of love. I visited with June one day in her room. She told me about her singing career, about touring overseas, performing in Prague and many other capitals of Europe, even singing with Pavarotti, I think. Lying down in her bed as we chatted, June was most cheerful, hospitable and animated. Clearly she loved reminiscing about her career. She told me she had also performed onstage in many musicals. I asked her what parts she had played. In her Northern British accent, she proudly replied: “I played Laurie in Oklahoma! But y ’know,” she continued, “My voice isn’t what it used to be, and I really don’t sing much anymore.”
I could hardly wait to see if we could get June out to attend the sessions that were part of our 6-month long project. She didn’t make it to the first couple, but the third one was all about music, and she was feeling well enough to come along. Bright-eyed and very engaged throughout the session, June was often the first person to give a response when Jeanie Brindley-Barnett of MacPhail Music Center asked the group a question. Near the end, Jeanie played the song “People will Say we’re in Love”, the famous love duet from Oklahoma. Then, Jeanie very casually invited June to sing it.
June did not hesitate. Her voice was creaky and warbling at first, but she put her heart into it and when she hit those high notes near the end of the song; her voice simply soared across the room, pure and free. Everyone in the room had an experience of the singer she once had been. Memory care residents and staff applauded heartily when the song was done. I looked over at Jeanie and saw that she, like me, had tears sliding down her face. I remember thinking in that moment that our project was already a complete success as far as I was concerned, based solely on what had just happened, because one resident had that opportunity to share her talent in front of a group again.
Unfortunately, June did not attend our other sessions. She came to just one, wasn’t feeling well, and had to leave almost immediately. Her health was deteriorating. In fact, she died before the project was completed.
A month or so after she passed away, I arranged to meet with June’s daughter. I was curious to hear more about June’s career, and thought there might be some recordings or programs in existence that might come in handy for the documentary film we were making about our project. (The day that June sang was not a day we had the film crew on site!) Her daughter let me know that June’s memory, once she got dementia, had actually….expanded…the extent of her career. In fact, June had never toured the capitals of Europe. She had not sung with Pavarotti. She had done a lot of community theater and some non-professional light opera performances! June did indeed play Laurie in Oklahoma, but she did not have the career she had described to me and many others in some detail, except in her imagination, fueled by dementia!
I admit I was a little disappointed at first, finding this out, but then I thought, wow, who wouldn’t want the kind of dementia where you remember your fondest dreams and expectations for yourself as reality?! Given the choice, I think that’s a kind I’d sign up for! There’s integrity in there for sure!
-Marysue Moses, Ebenezer Dimensions Program Coordinator