Recently I made a trip to my hometown in Florida for my mother’s wedding. All the details were figured out and my ticket was booked, but something unexpected happened. Before my trip my grandfather, who has advanced dementia, had a fall. Luckily (or unluckily), I was going down anyways and would be able to visit my grandfather. On the phone my mother spoke the words to me that no granddaughter who has been loved so dearly by her grandfather wants to hear, “This may be the last time that you get to see him.” So I thought and I prayed and I cried. What was I to do?
During the group presentations for my pastoral care class that I took in my second year, we learned about pastoral care for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia. In this presentation I learned about the importance of the conservation of skills as detailed by author Eileen Shamey. Preservation of skills is the recognition of particular skills that the person has, and providing opportunities for that person to exercise that skill regularly. Equally, I learned through my own research that music that has been meaningful to a person earlier in their life could give some sort of refuge and temporary relief to people with dementia. Further, my work for my Clinical Pastoral Education Internship has been teaching me to be present with someone, even when they may not to be able to vocalize themselves. So I packed this all in my toolkit and flew to Florida. Upon touchdown we went directly to see my grandfather, and my heart was set on singing.
We spoke for a while, and mostly we listened to my grandfather trying to communicate with us. Nearing the end of our time there I had still not done what I had set to do, to sing. I do not regard myself as a singer, so I was extremely nervous, but I also feared that grandpa would not respond well to it. What if he got angry, or what if he did not like it and could not express it to me? So, I tried another thing I learned in pastoral care, to make the intrapersonal question an interpersonal question. I asked my grandpa if he would like me to sing and he nodded yes. So I started with one of his favorites, How Great Thou Art. As I began the first line my grandpa teared up and lifted his hands in praise. Soon enough he was singing whatever words he could of all four verses and chorus. Though his tears, and tears of my own, we then sang three other of his favorite hymns, and concluded with a German lullaby that my grandmother, his wife, would sing to her granddaughters to put them to bed. Even in a language he did not know, he could remember the melody and that this was the way that his beloved expressed her love to their granddaughters.
I am not convinced that my grandpa knew that I was Courtney, his second of six granddaughters. However, I am convinced that he knew that I was someone whom he loved, and someone who loved him back. Something that I have constantly had to remind myself in this divinity school journey is that I am not my family’s pastoral caregiver. I am a spouse, a daughter, a sister, a niece, and a granddaughter. However, I would be remiss to disregard the tools that I have picked up, used, and sometimes have laid back down. It is through what I have learned here that my family has learned to sing, when my grandfather does not have the words and frankly neither do they. So sing. Find the melodies that touch heartstrings, awaken consciousness, and heal in a way that truly touches the soul.
Courtney is a third year student originally from Deland, Florida. Upon graduation she plans on pursuing a chaplaincy residency, and brewing her own beer.