A Familiar in the Land of Losses

My Year of Visits to Memory Care









I first visited Millie a few days before Christmas. She had fallen and broken her hip and, after a short hospitalization, was recovering at a rehabilitation hospital. My friend Bernie had arrived from Los Angeles to tend to his mother’s needs and called to inform us of her situation. When I entered her room, she was staring listlessly into space, a bit disoriented by the whole ordeal. Though I had known her for decades, she passively greeted me and persisted in her dementia and trauma-driven daydream. After a few minutes of cordialities and warm embraces, I offered to play a song on my flute. As I played something remarkable happened. Her face began to change and her vacant stare took on a glow of reflected emotion. Then tears began to roll down her face.

I noticed her dramatic transformation and so did Bernie. “What is it?” He asked her.

“I don’t know,” she said, “that song just made me feel so much. It was beautiful.”

Thus began the remarkable relationship between Millie and me and the flute.

A couple of days later Bernie called to report that Millie had taken another fall and was at the nearby Emergency Room. I grabbed my flute and was on my way. As she rested in the bed in the tiny ER alcove, I softly played a song of comfort for her. This happened several times in the first weeks of the new year, including visits to other temporary rehabilitation facilities.  Later Millie would report of me “he has visited and played for me every time I went to the hospital.”

After a dogged search, Bernie found a suitable memory care facility for Millie, sweetening the deal with the expressed benefit that a guy would come play flute occasionally, something the other residents might enjoy.  As we moved in furnishings and set up Millie’s room with familiar objects and photos, I was already befriending residents at the facility. By the time I played for the assembly of residents in the activity room, I was a welcome and familiar face.

As I played for the group, they responded. Faces brightened, looking up from their distant gazes, engaging in the same way Millie had when I first played for her. Then I played the one actual song I know, as the rest are simply meditative improvisations. Upon my mother’s encouragement I had learned to play Amazing Grace, not an altogether simple task, as the Native American flute is tuned in a minor pentatonic key and the fingering pattern is altogether different. My mission realized, I prayerfully played the hymn and soon heard humming, then voices singing along. When we finished the whole room erupted in applause, not just for my playing, but because it was the reasonable next act in the rousing event. What had been a room occupied by disengaged residents was transformed into a celebratory group experience. I bowed graciously and promised to return and play more.

Thus, throughout the year I visited Millie once or twice weekly. First we would contact Bernie on FaceTime for updates, stories, and laughter. Then I wheeled Millie to the dining room where I would sit and play for the residents as meals were served. This routine has become somewhat predictable and I am now recognized upon arrival and my playing is requested and equally rewarded. These residents have become my stalwart fans and express such gratitude for the “peaceful songs” I deliver. I recall that on one visit their applause and graciousness was so strong I felt as though I was the champion of a bout being carried upon the shoulders of a cheering crowd.

Throughout this year I have also come to know them and the challenges they are encountering in this shadowed twilight of their lives. I have come to know them as they are. As a hypnotherapist perhaps my decades communicating with individuals within the dreaming world of hypnotic trance has enabled me to understand their sometimes opaque statements, bubbling up from a sea of drifting remembrances or concerns.   One thing that has been clear and consistent is their almost universal request to go home. Their security needs have created a kind of cloistered confinement and more than one has sought to conspire in hushed tones for me to help them escape. Within this restricted realm, however, they adjust to the routines of the day and develop their own manner of relationship with one another. Millie regularly gives me reports about residents like a gossip columnist.

I have also come to know many family members on their regular or random visits. I see in them a similar sense of bewilderment as that experienced by the residents. They struggle to connect and interact with the ever-fading coherence of their spouse or parent. I see their sorrowful longing for a time before illness began to rob their beloved of memory, function, and at times even recognition. I feel their sense of shared loss as they rage silently against the circumstance.

I have been somewhat spared from this distress due to the absence of a close previous relationship, for my encounters with Millie were sparse. This separation was challenged, however, when one resident whom I had become very close to revealed more of her own story. Serendipitously, she was the mother of another dear friend and in residence at the same facility. Our visits, like those with Millie, became a part of my routine. One day she was not at her table for lunch. I went to her room to check on her and she was sleeping peacefully on her bed. On the wall I noticed a photo montage. As I looked at the various images I began to see the richness of this friend’s previous adventures. I saw her as she was before her stroke and dementia had diminished her function. I suddenly felt as though a trap-door had opened within my gut and all the contents had disappeared into the subsequent vacuum. From this mournful hollowness, I played a gentle song for my friend, now with a greater understanding of her odyssey. I played of the joyous travels and time with family and friends. I played a song of quiet comfort, of presence, of regard for her long and full journey. I left her napping with a familiar kiss upon the forehead. She had been a teacher; I had become, perhaps, her final student who was now learning the most meaningful lesson she could share, the value of each day’s fullness.

As the months passed, I observed the continuing losses for my familiar friends. I saw their phases of progression of illness, their injuries from falls, their slow yet steady retreat from daily activity, their absence from the dining table, their departure from the facility and this life; this final loss often met with a resolute sense of gained serenity. I have greeted newcomers and played for them a welcoming song, always met with an engaging smile.

I have also come to know the staff and their tireless patience and support for the residents. I have even been mistaken as staff by visitors due to my familiar presence. I have been delighted to see how the staff works to help make special days matter. Such was the case when I recently attended the Christmas Dinner. A full feast was prepared and family members brought deserts. It was just like a home-made event. I even managed to pick out a rough version of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” on my flute and was gifted with more applause and appreciation.

Afterward, I took Millie back to her room for our common entertainment of shopping for clothes in her closet, an echo of one of her favorite former activities. She selected a garment, admiring its texture and then asked “How much?”

“It’s already taken care of, Millie.” I replied, as she nodded approvingly.

We called Bernie for a chat, celebrating the progress of the remodel of his new home in Minnesota and his approaching visit. We reported on the birds and squirrels at the feeder he had installed outside her window. Following the call she pointed to the poster sized photos Bernie had placed on the walls, getting their identities mostly right. I showed and read to her the Christmas cards she had received from family. She enjoyed a piece of her favorite chocolate as I played another song on my flute. When I finished, she looked kindly at me and said “you’re really getting good at that.”

“Thanks to your support, Millie.” I replied. We hugged. I kissed her forehead and she kissed mine. “I love you,” she said.

“I love you too Millie, I’ll see you again in a few days.”

I gathered my flute, left her resting cozily in her room, and made my way back to the front door to wait for a staff member to let me out.


Millie and me on her 88th birthday









FaceTime with Bernie

©2018 Timothy L Trujillo    timothytrujillo.com