Earlier on in my medical career, I worked on an Elderly Care ward.
Ruby was one of our patients. She had the most beautiful luminescent skin, hazel eyes, naturally curly eyelashes flecked with white, and cheek bones to die for. There was a grace and poise to her. Her legs were fixed in a flexed position and would not stretch. She wore foot pads to prevent pressure sores. She could no longer speak due to advanced Alzheimer’s disease. Ruby’s only way of communication was turning her head and grimacing when the nurses tried to feed her, and banging her left arm on her leg.
Her husband used to visit her every day. He would bring her food and wash her face.
I spoke to him now and then. He told me that she used to work as an auxiliary nurse in this very same hospital where she was now a patient.
Not long after Ruby arrived on our ward, I came across this video about the benefits of music for people with Alzheimer’s. I was fascinated at how it worked!
I don’t believe in coincidences….
It got me thinking. I asked Ruby’s husband if she enjoyed any particular music. He told me that she loved her hymns in church and named a couple she liked.
The next day I went and sat next to Ruby and played the hymn from my phone. After about 30 seconds, she turned her face towards mine, looked me right in the eyes, and blinked. She then turned back and did her routine arm banging on her leg for a few seconds.
Every day I would find a few minutes to go and sit with Ruby and play her music. I would add in some other music that I thought she may have enjoyed from her youth. Elvis and Aretha made the playlist! Sometimes I would hold her hand and stroke it. She didn’t pull away or resist. Even though Ruby could not talk, I just hoped that what I was doing was helping on some level.
One day while I was sat playing music to her, it coincided with lunch time. The nurse was rushed as usual so I offered to help feed Ruby. The nurse was happy to be relieved of another chore and as she rushed away she said, “You’ll be lucky if you can a spoonful in her”.
I had see many times how Ruby would purse her lips and turn her head and refuse to eat.
Tentatively I offered a spoonful of food to Ruby. I held the spoon by her lips for a few seconds. Then with no hesitation, she opened her mouth wide and brought her head forwards an inch towards the spoon. And so it continued. No force, no cajoling. Ruby finished the plate of food. The same nurse stopped in her tracks as she walked past to stop and watch. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing.
I didn’t get the opportunity to help Ruby eat lunch again, but there was one more thing that happened…
During one of what were now our regular five minute music sessions, Ruby suddenly turned her face to mine and smiled. A real smile. She pressed her lips together, her cheek bones rose and she scrunched her eyes. Her whole face changed. She was there. She was present. She gave me a glimpse of her former self. It lasted no more than three seconds, but it happened, just that once.
Ruby left hospital not long after to be moved to a care home. She died two weeks later.
It can be so hard for family when a loved one has dementia. Remember that the last thing to “go” is their hearing – so keep talking, keep singing. They may not be able to respond but they CAN hear you. Make your words precious and loving. It brings great comfort.
Thank you, Ruby. You were one of my greatest teachers.