NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, May 21st. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Families dealing with devastating diagnoses such as Alzheimer’s disease is growing.
It doesn’t take long for dementia to start closing doors to communication.
Yet for some people, music re-opens them. WORLD Radio’s Jenny Rough visited a chaplain who uses hymns to help.
AUDIO: [Sound of residents arriving]
JENNY ROUGH, REPORTER: It’s 1 p.m. on a Friday at the Peaks at Old Laramie Trail. That’s an assisted living and memory care unit in Lafayette, Colorado.
Elderly residents trickle into a room that’s been converted to a makeshift church. Some wear slippers. Others wear Skechers. Almost all wear some sort of lace-less shoe as they walk, shuffle, or wheel their way to their chairs.
Chaplain Elisa Bosley welcomes each person with a hug and a white binder of large-print hymns.
RESIDENT: May I have a book?
BOSLEY: Yes, you may indeed.
RESIDENT: Oh, there it is.
BOSLEY AND RESIDENT: [LAUGHING]
RESIDENT: I could’ve gotten it myself.
BOSLEY: So please pray with me as I open our time together. Let’s pray. Heavenly Father…
The service includes Bible readings, prayer, and discussion. But the primary reason people are here is to sing.
Bosley has seen music therapy transform dementia patients.
BOSLEY: I think it was a 2015 study that actually did some brain mapping that showed this section of the brain that is responsible for music retention and it is largely spared all the way through Alzheimer’s.
Some residents appear to be sleeping. Others slump over, lifeless. But when the singing starts, they lift their heads and their souls awaken.
AUDIO: [Residents singing “The Beauty of the Earth”]
BOSLEY: Well, in my worldview God did that, right? Because what were we created for? We’re created to worship.
Bosley realized she had a knack for working with the elderly after her father-in-law developed Alzheimer’s. She began volunteering at a care unit and saw a huge need.
BOSLEY: How much spiritual care is actually happening for elders? Long story short: not much.
Bosley discovered that residents who are physically incapacitated or cognitively challenged often can’t get out to church.
BOSLEY: It just breaks my heart that this care isn’t being given. Because my experience is people literally weep with relief and joy. They miss it—they miss going to church. Or they just respond to it right away. But I bring it in and they don’t have to go out.
In her years as a chaplain, Bosley has noticed that some younger staff think dementia patients won’t benefit from spiritual care.
BOSLEY: I think people that don’t have dementia, non-dementia people, they think that your faith, you forget it, but you don’t. And God certainly doesn’t forget. Do not assume they’re not hearing, that they are not interacting with God in their spirit and that nothing’s getting through. Don’t assume that. Something is getting through.
These days, Bosley volunteers at four different senior care facilities and is amazed at the miracles she witnesses.
BOSLEY: Page 8. Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. Lots of great promises in this song.
AUDIO: [Residents singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”]
The 2014 documentary Alive Inside took a look at how music can evoke memories. It focused on an individual encounter with music using headphones.
BOSLEY: What this guy, and it was really smart, he started — his name is Dan Cohen — he realized that if he got iPods with personalized playlists on them for elders and they put them on in the residence, these elders just came alive.
But it didn’t explore worshiping God in community.
Other organizations provide group sing-alongs for the elderly, but they don’t include spiritual songs.
BOSLEY: They’ll sing patriotic songs up the wazoo, right, or 50s music or 60s music.
Bosley partnered with Music and Memory, a nonprofit that brings music into the lives of the elderly. While it had an extensive music library, she noticed a large hole, so she donated her music files.
BOSLEY: Incredibly, they had no hymns on their library. Now they do. They have mine.
Bosley offers her hymn songbook recordings for free on her website. She chooses the hymns carefully.
BOSLEY: I came up with a spreadsheet of which songs appear in which denominations, because I really wanted a cross-section, because I know I have people that are Catholic, I have people that are Lutheran, I definitely have people from all kinds of traditions or no tradition.
Her musical recordings are specifically designed for people with memory loss.
BOSLEY: There’s tons of spiritual music online, but it wasn’t arranged for people who have dementia, right. It was big choral arrangements and massive instrumentation.
Dementia-friendly hymns are clean and easy.
BOSLEY: It’s a piano and it’s two voices, that’s it. There’s no drums. There’s no bass. It’s very, very simple, and the arrangements need to be super simple, and they’re low and they’re slow.
Offering a dementia-friendly worship service is something anyone can do. You don’t need a good voice, although flexibility helps.
In the middle of one song, Bosley directs a lady to the bathroom. Then a different woman approaches her. The woman is crying. Bosley prays with her.
BOSLEY: I will repeat over and over, you are not alone. God is with you. I am with you. Your friends are with you. You’re safe here.
Some residents can barely string two sentences together. But when it comes to glorifying their great God with music, the group has no trouble expressing exactly what they want to say.
BOSLEY: Let’s close by singing the Doxology one time together.
AUDIO: [Residents singing the Doxology]
For WORLD Radio, I’m Jenny Rough reporting from Lafayette, Colorado.