It was a sentimental and necessary journey. I wanted to go back to the Alzheimer’s facility where my dad-in-law, Pepaw, had resided for nine months until he passed away in mid-May. I had learned so much more about Alzheimer’s and had fallen in love with the residents and staff, and I know it’s just where I need to be sometimes, like yesterday … to learn and live some more.
I joke with the staff that it’s weird not getting calls anymore announcing Pepaw’s latest escapades, “Guess what he’s doing now …” I walk the halls, talk to residents, and show them some of my toys like little colorful whirligigs, or pinwheels, and my purple tambourine. I never know when I’m going to need the latter, just in case I get crazy enough to lead a sing-a-long, a wild and wacky thing I’ve picked up from stroke camp.
I enter the activities room where eight women sit in silence after the conclusion of the afternoon game. They’re not sure what to do with themselves, and I’m not sure what to do with myself, so, hey, why not see what we can or cannot do together.
I pull out my tambourine and take the empty seat at the long table.
“So, what are we going to do now?” I ask.
“I was just thinking,” says the first, “why are we all sitting here?”
“What kind of songs do you all like?” I ask.
“Songs. What kind of songs do you like to sing?”
Silence. Hmm, I didn’t phrase that right to get the response I needed. I needed to be much more specific. Suddenly, the second woman says there are song sheets in the drawer. I check, but nothing. The first asks if it’s snack time.
I try to redirect them. “What can we do, ladies?”
A third tries to tell us something, but she can’t find the words. I give her a few moments and then must keep the conversation going or I’ll lose them.
As I point to the tambourine, I ask, “Do any of you play musical instruments?”
Several say no, and the first asks, “Are we supposed to?” Confusion clouds her face.
“Oh, no, I just wondered.” This reassures her that she hasn’t forgotten anything. The relief is immediate.
“I played the accordion,” says the fourth.
For several minutes we are treated to an extraordinary story of her adventures playing with an all-accordion marching band in California when she was in high school. She describes how heavy that instrument was and the many practices she attended.
“How much do those things weigh?” the third asks.
“They weighed quite a bit, but I don’t know,” says the former marcher. “It was all I could carry.” She tells of how they marched on Hollywood Boulevard one day, and she tripped on something in the road.
A chorus of “oh no!” fills the room. She laughs as she describes herself as a frog on her belly floundering in the street on top of that accordion.
“Did it break the accordion?” I ask.
“It had to be repaired.”
“What kind of shape were you in?” the first inquires.
“I was stiff and sore and hurt muscles.”
“You had to carry that a long way, didn’t you?” the first asks.
“You had to have strong arms,” the player says, naming her band director from so many decades ago.
I tell them that I played saxophone in junior high and also marched, but my instrument was nowhere near the size and weight of hers.
The first looks at me and my tambourine.
“Play that thing.”
“What should we play?” I ask the group, four of whom haven’t said a word. I tap the drumhead as the metal rings clang against each other.
“I love those things,” says the first.
I offer it to number two, sitting to my right. “Give us a melody.”
“I’ve got no rhythm.”
She taps it lightly, and then I can see that the first one across from us really wants to try it. We push it toward her. She immediately picks it up and shakes and hits it like an old pro and starts to move in her seat. We all laugh with her as she proclaims, “It’s the Dance of the Seven Veils,” and shakes her upper body more and picks up the beat.
The accordion player asks what the instrument is, and I explain it’s the tambourine. The first, the seven veils lady, looks at me from head to foot and says it’s purple just like my shirt and my shoes. Everyone peeks under the table to see my purple shoes, and the “oohs” and “aahs” begin.
Suddenly, number one starts beating the instrument and singing, “Roll Out the Barrel.” This clicks instantly with the accordion player who joins her. I jump in, and we sing the first two lines before we realize none of us could remember any more lyrics. It doesn’t matter as we smile, laugh and pass around the tambourine. The fifth woman explores every inch of it, particularly the metal jingles.
This continues until an aide announces that snacks are available in the dining room. We joke about whether we should have a congo line on the way! Maybe tomorrow!
Forget the stereotypes of “little old ladies” with Alzheimer’s sitting around and passively listening to Lawrence Welk. They really wanna dance and roll out the barrel … but only after their snacks!
Excuse me, but I have some lyrics to memorize before my next visit …
Roll out the barrel, we’ll have a barrel of fun
Roll out the barrel, we’ve got the blues on the run
Zing boom tararrel, ring out a song of good cheer
Now’s the time to roll the barrel, for the gang’s all here!