73: Dancing Words

73: Dancing Words

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer's & Other Dementias

Dancing Words

I see dance being used as communication between body and soul, to express what is too deep to find for words.

~Ruth St. Denis

As a newly transplanted nursing home administrator in the spring of 1980, I was excited to meet the residents at Phoenix Mountain Nursing Center, a skilled nursing home that had just opened a year earlier. Going from room to room introducing myself and trying to remember each resident’s name, I instantly recognized the gentleman I had just met — Mr. Russell Lyon, Sr. I had noticed the large billboards advertising the Russ Lyon Realty Company when house hunting.

I asked if he was a relative, but received a blank stare in return. His nurse confirmed that the well-dressed gentleman I just met was, indeed, the same Mr. Lyon that owned the Russ Lyon Realty Company.

Over the next several months I saw Mr. Lyon daily, usually at lunch or dinner in the dining room. Always impeccably dressed, he never responded to the usual pleasantries of the staff or other residents. The blank stare was always present. Physically, he could walk without assistance and was always compliant with the directions and care provided by the nursing staff.

As Christmas approached, groups came by to sing carols, but the highlight of the holiday season was the evening orchestra presentation a week before Christmas Day. Scheduled almost a year in advance, a well-known orchestra was set to perform in front of a dining room filled to capacity. A thirty-by-thirty-foot dance floor was assembled, wassail and dessert were ready, and families were arriving to take Christmas photos with their loved ones before the show.

The show began with traditional carols, and then the orchestra started playing big band tunes. Mr. Lyon immediately stood, turned to his caregiver, and said, “Would you care to dance?”

The caregiver was astonished but said, “I’d love to.” Hand-in-hand they walked to the dance floor and Mr. Lyon began dancing as if he had been practicing just for this event. As he danced he chatted with the staff, said hello, told them that he appreciated the little things that they did for him daily, and that he was frustrated with his inability to communicate with them.

I talked with him during a dance and he told me “I’m still here.” While the music played, he danced with all of the nurses and was animated in his discussions — and when the music stopped, the blank stare returned as if a switch had been thrown.

This turn of events was shared with his physician and his family, and we speculated how we could continue to open this channel of communication with Mr. Lyon on a routine basis. A portable cassette player with musical recordings from the 1940s provided the key. Using this method, we were able to continue communicating with Mr. Lyon for another eight months, until the brain cells that controlled that channel of communication for Mr. Lyon quit functioning, too. He died a month later.

Our discovery with Mr. Lyon gave us all a renewed sense of optimism when providing care to others with similar diagnoses because, in our minds, they “were still there,” even though normal communication routes were not functioning. Since that time, I have seen similar instances of individuals with Alzheimer’s who can communicate through music, art, and, I’m convinced, divine intervention — and I continue to remember what Mr. Lyon said: “I’m still here.”

~John White

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