Music to Soothe the Savage…

This post describes, in part, the effects of a degenerative neurological condition called Huntington’s Disease. Any negative behavior on the part of my wife should be attributed to that condition. Any negative behavior on the part of myself should be attributed to my need for God’s ongoing grace.

If you would like to read our story from the beginning, you can start here: How We Got Here…

More changes this week. Janet is only awake four or five hours a day. It has also become very difficult for her to walk because she can’t really support her own (steadily decreasing) weight. I may have to stop taking her to the bathroom. No walker, no wheelchair, just the bed.

At one time, her world was the world. She traveled to Europe, toured the US, and we honeymooned in Tahiti. Then due to this disease, her world shrank first to a single town, then to an apartment, then a room and now to an 80″ x 34″ hospital bed.

Once a teacher capable of explaining the intricacies of mathematics with precise, clearly formulated explanations, her words and thoughts are now both garbled. She is sundowning badly and spends much of her awake time confused and hallucinating. Consequently, I find myself reassuring her more and more by saying, “Don’t worry Janet, I’ve taken care of everything…” Which makes me feel like a fraud because it doesn’t feel like I have taken care of anything.

A brochure that we got from hospice presented such a comforting, peaceful view of an “end of life” process in which Janet would just quietly and effortlessly drift off into eternity. I find myself wondering where one signs up for that program. Despite everything that I’ve seen and written, I still catch myself thinking, it can’t get worse than this – and then it does…

I was talking to the hospice nurse this week, and they have a respite program where they will pick Janet up in an ambulance, check her into an in-patient hospice facility for five days, and then bring her home at the end of the stay. Hopefully, this time will give Frannie and me a chance to get some badly-needed rest and recharge a bit before the last big push. When I told Janet about it, the first thing she said was:

“What did I do wrong?”

She thought that this was some kind of punishment or “time out.” Frannie and I both reassured her that it was just a time of rest for all three of us – her included.

“Just think,” I told her, “five whole days of getting taken care of by people who really know what they are doing – and not a couple of amateurs like us.”

This end time is also a season for learning new skills. Most recently I learned how to cry silently so as to not disturb Janet.

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While the phrase “Music Therapy” may, at first hearing sound, very New Age, nothing could be further from the truth. The concept was expressed eloquently in the opening lines of the tragic play The Mourning Bride written in 1697 by the British poet William Congreve:

Musick has Charms to soothe a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
I’ve read, that things inanimate have mov’d,
And, as with living Souls, have been inform’d,
By Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound.
What then am I? Am I more senseless grown
Than Trees, or Flint? O force of constant Woe!
‘Tis not in Harmony to calm my Griefs.
Anselmo sleeps, and is at Peace; last Night
The silent Tomb receiv’d the good Old King;
He and his Sorrows now are safely lodg’d
Within its cold, but hospitable Bosom.
Why am not I at Peace?

Although this verse documents a failed attempt at “soothing,” the concept predated the poem considerably. For example, Congreve’s line was probably a reference to a poem from the Roman poet Lucan, and Old Testament references to similar ideas (e.g. 1 Sam 16:15-16) show that the idea of music as a therapeutic agent was recognized far back into antiquity.

My first exposure to the idea came through a 1940’s cartoon in which Bugs Bunny quoted the line in his mixed Brooklyn/Bronx accent as:

Music hath charms to calm the savage beast

– which in the cartoon was a rather dopy lion. Also note the change of the last word. In the 1940s you couldn’t mention “breasts” in films – even metaphorical ones. Whether it’s Bugs Bunny’s fault or not, this is still the most common misquotation of the line.

However, the modern practice of music therapy is based on far more than folklore and literary tradition. In recent years, medical researchers have scientifically documented the effects that music can have on people’s mental and emotional states by using brain scans to track the neural signals that tell the pituitary gland to release endorphins, the so-called “feel good” hormones.

Studies have also documented music’s ability to relieve stress, decrease symptoms of depression, reduce negative thoughts, and generally improve the listener’s state of mind. One interesting discovery that is of particular significance to caregivers is that there is no single kind of music that is universally therapeutic. Depending upon the person, and their mood at the moment, nearly any genre of music can be of benefit.

Music can also aid people in self-expression, or bring to mind past experiences. But remember, not all feelings that a person can express are positive, and not all past experiences are pleasant. For example, one person I spoke with for this article shared how she was singing the John Denver song Sunshine On My Shoulders in a group setting and one of the clients started crying uncontrollably. Interestingly, this client had previously been completely shut down emotionally and unable to participate – so while whatever memory the song brought up may not have been pleasant, perhaps those emotions were what was needed to start him on the path to healing.

Note that MT can be applicable even for people who are either totally or partially deaf, in that they can still feel the vibrations or other physical sensations associated with the music (called haptics). In fact there are several websites dedicated to the use of music therapy with people having hearing deficits.

Formally, Music Therapy (MT) comes in two forms:

Active MT – This form involves the actions of a therapist playing music for and with the patient, encouraging them to play or sing along. This sort of work often, though not always, occurs in a group environment – such as a group in a nursing home where the clients are in various stages of dementia. It can be really helpful to sing songs that the people remember from earlier in life because memories of music are apparently stored in a different part of the brain than normal everyday memories and will therefore last a lot longer. Singing old songs by themselves, or in combination with the playing of instruments or hand clapping, can get a person moving and interacting with other people, which in turn helps to improve mood and health.

Note that in many jurisdictions, music therapists have certification requirements similar to the requirements for other forms of therapy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t work with your loved one on your own.

For example, a spouse knows the songs that were meaningful to their loved one and can use that knowledge to help keep them present and involved. Certainly, the same thing would be true for a parent dealing with a child suffering from a degenerative condition. Remembering children’s songs can give comfort and support by reminding them of happier times before they got sick.

Passive MT – In this form of therapy, the patient listens to music without any sort of required participation. Again, a caregiver’s knowledge of their loved one can serve as a guide in selecting the appropriate music. For example, just because a magazine or website may say that Mozart is “soothing” not everyone will find it to be so. For example, a given person may prefer Charlie Pride, The Oakridge Boys, The Beatles, Aaron Nevill or even The Brighouse and Rastrick Band – and that’s OK. It is all about what is soothing to them.

And don’t forget about religious music. Even if the person doesn’t normally listen to “church music” every day, hearing a favorite hymn or music from their church’s liturgy can be a comforting reminder of God’s love and care. Some of my most wonderful memories from growing up were from family trips, where my mother would sing to my father to help him stay awake on long drives. Hearing those hymns now never fails to bring a tear to my eye, but they also make me feel warm and loved.

For more information on any of this you can refer to the American Music Therapy Association. Their website provides links for obtaining more information, as well as a function for locating a licensed music therapist here in the US. The main thing to remember is that as a caregiver you have insights that a stranger – no matter how professional they may be – does not have.

And finally, don’t forget that music therapy works for you too.

In Christ, Amen ☩

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A prayer for when you are feeling savage…

“Blessed are You, Lord God, King of the Universe. It is right that I should at all times and in all circumstances bless You for who You are. But today I want to bless You especially for a particular aspect of who my loved ones and I are. You have created us to be able to enjoy the music of others and the ability to create music of our own. Thank you for putting in our hearts the desire to make a ‘joyful noise’ in Your presence. Amen.”

What… You too?

This post describes, in part, the effects of a degenerative neurological condition called Huntington’s Disease. Any negative behavior on the part of my wife should be attributed to that condition. Any negative behavior on the part of myself should be attributed to my need for God’s ongoing grace.

If you would like to read our story from the beginning, you can start here: How We Got Here…

So Janet now has two security cameras watching her, and between the two of them I can track where she is most of the time. I may need to get another for the kitchen, but we’ll see. The nice thing about the ones I purchased (which are made by Samsung) is that the setup was super simple, and it feels so nice to be able to check up on her anytime. Unfortunately, Janet doesn’t always feel the same.

Janet keeps wanting to stand up and walk around the apartment without her walker. One afternoon Frannie and I had to run a couple of errands, so Janet took our being out of the house as an opportunity to get up and have a bit of a walkabout without being scolded – or so she thought. As soon as she got up, the motion detector on the video feed tripped and I got a notification on my phone.

I opened the app and sure enough, there she was, walking around and no walker. The cameras also have built-in mics and speakers, that allow two-way communications. So I tapped the microphone button on my phone and said, “Janet, you aren’t supposed to be walking around. Go sit back down!” A couple seconds later I could hear my words coming out of the camera’s speaker. She looked startled, but she did it. This scenario played out twice more, but the second time when I tried to call up the camera, it was off-line – she had unplugged it.

When we got home, I reminded her that those cameras are helping to keep her out of a nursing home and that they need to stay on. She agreed, and promised not to disconnect it again, but just to be sure, I found a place to plug in the camera that she can’t reach…

Jan has also been having a lot of trouble grasping (a) how the medical alert system we just got works, and (b) the importance of wearing either the bracelet or the pendant at all times. For that piece of technology, I’m trying to keep it as simple as possible: “If you need help, just push the button.”

The service we have uses a box that is essentially a speaker phone on steroids. When Janet pushes the button, the box calls the service and an operator asks her if she needs help over the (very loud) speaker phone. If either Janet tells them she needs help, or the operator doesn’t hear any answer, they will start working their way down the contact list, calling first me, then Frannie, and finally 911.

A nice feature is that the service provides us with a lockbox for the front door (like realtors use) that contains a key to the door. This box allows the EMTs to come right in without needing to wait for the police to arrive and break the door in.

Now all I have to do is convince her to use the button. Today she fell and cracked her head. No major damage, but it bled like crazy for a couple minutes. After I got things under control, I asked her what she would have done if I hadn’t been right there when she had fallen. She said, “Surrendered to God…”

“No, wrong answer! Push the blamed button!”

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As I look back, the responses to my blog posts have run the gamut from extremely complimentary to borderline repulsive. However I can say, without hesitation, that the most common type of response could be summed up in the statement, “What… You too?” Despite the many modes and opportunities for communication we have at our disposal, we still can feel surprised when we encounter someone with whom we share experiences and feelings.

Sometimes this surprise results from unchallenged stereotypes. As a rather benign example, I can’t tell you how many times people have been taken aback by the fact that I enjoy knitting. But the fact of the matter is that in many cultures, it was historically common for men to knit because it uses many of the same skills that were needed to create and mend fishing nets. Besides, I find it utilitarian, relaxing, and even meditative.

Sometimes we are surprised by a shared appreciation of something. For instance: “Wow! You like lutefisk, me too!” Actually, that’s a bad example. Nobody likes lutefisk. You just eat it because you are Norwegian or Swedish – or a polite out-of-town visitor at a Lutheran potluck dinner.

But more ominously, the surprise sometimes derives from a feeling of isolation that leads us to believe that we are the only person in the entire history of humankind to have ever felt so sad, or so troubled, or so hopeless. Of course when you say it that way, it can sound a bit silly, but it’s not. When we are feeling isolated and alone, we have no point of reference to tell us that our current feelings are to be expected, and so are, in fact, rather common.

But that begs the question first posed above: How, in the face of all the communications options we have today, does someone end up feeling so isolated? Well, it’s not about technology, that’s for sure.

Long before the advent of Facebook, the World Wide Web, the internet, television, telephone or even the telegraph, personal isolation was a problem. The image of the loner isolated in the midst of a vast sea of humanity was a well-known theme the world over, and had been for a very long time. And to be fair, the world has, over the centuries, benefited greatly from such people. Whether you’re talking about authors, philosophers, painters, musicians, or anchorites, some of the greatest minds in history were loners.

But that image isn’t really the one I’m talking about. For those people, the solitary lifestyle they choose (or in some cases, perhaps, chooses them) was not about isolation. Rather, withdrawing from society was, for them, a tool that allowed them to be united with something larger than themselves: their art, their muse, or their God.

No, what I’m talking about is an isolation born of despair. The image I’m talking about is this one:

This painting by Edgar Degas and is titled L’absinthe or The Absinthe Drinker. Degas created the painting between 1875 and 1876, and it shows the interior of a cafe that still exists in Paris, La Nouvelle Athènes. Located a stone’s throw from a busy boulevard and, at the time, a gathering place for artists and young philosophers, the cafe and the street outside it were, no doubt, filled with happy, bustling throngs. This was, after all, Paris: the so-called “City of Lights.”

Yet all we see in the picture is darkness and isolation. The woman, apparently unaffected by the lights and crowds, is isolated from everyone – even from a male companion to her left. So she simply stares down into her drink or perhaps into the abyss.

Now, a hard question: Did any of you have a flash of recognition, like I did, looking into the woman’s face? A moment of, “What… You too?” If so, take a moment and then we’ll continue.

It would be hard to overstate the upset and anger that this painting caused when it was first shown publicly. It was called vile, disgusting, even obscene – and that was from Degas’ fans. One art critic was so repulsed and outspoken, that he later had to publicly apologize for a verbal outburst in which he referred to the woman as, “a whore.”

The point is that back then, as now, people didn’t like to look too deeply into the pain that lies in the hearts of others. Of course, we don’t know what brought the woman to this state, but does it really matter? Despair and isolation, regardless of the cause, are the same across cultures, and as we can see, across the centuries, as well.

Consequently, readers of the two or three dozen support forums I follow probably have little trouble recognizing both the feeling expressed in that face or identifying its many causes. For example:

  • Maybe you are someone who has just gotten a fatal diagnosis.
  • Maybe you are a new caregiver that has just seen your future disappear in a puff of purple smoke.
  • Maybe you are an experienced caregiver that has just been reminded of how profoundly out of balance your life has become.
  • Maybe you are wrestling with the fact that there is no one in your life that really understands you.
  • …and so on, and so on.

There is no end to the reasons…

So given all this familiarity, what is the solution? Before we can answer that question, we need to come to an understanding of the word, “solution.” There are pharmaceutical solutions, psychiatric solutions, religious solutions, and spiritual/esoteric solutions. Likewise, some solutions address root causes, while others simply help you survive until a long-term solution becomes apparent. In the right context, they can all be helpful.

But one that I particularly want to recommend could be called, “Ink Therapy.” Given recent history here in the US, I guess I should make it clear that I’m not telling you to ingest it, snort it, or take it intravenously. Rather, you want to use the ink for writing. Think about it, if the fundamental cause of “that face” is a feeling of isolation, the most direct attack on the problem is to refuse to be isolated. A couple weeks ago, I told you about my Uncle John who had the habit of just walking up to people on the street and introducing himself. In the context of the support groups that you follow, I’m suggesting that you do the same thing.

If all you’ve ever done is lurk in the shadows around the edges of our virtual campfire, go to your forums, click on the field that asks, “What’s on your mind?” and introduce yourself. Tell us who you are and what is going on in your life. Tell us your story – the end of which, by the way, you can’t yet see.

While it might seem obvious that your story is important to you, it’s probably not so obvious that it can be just as important to someone else. I have learned that there is one type of question on the forums that is almost always answered in the affirmative. I’m talking about the ones that start with the phrase, “Is it normal for…” The truth is, it doesn’t matter what symptom you describe to finish that sentence: 99.99% of the time, someone else will have experienced the same thing. So, yeah, it’s normal.

Talking, writing, communicating multiply your opportunities for “What… You too?” moments. And while those moments may not make your burden any lighter, they will nevertheless make them easier to carry because you know you aren’t really alone. Indeed, many other people have trodden the same path you are on now – and have come out the other side.

So two closing points:

First, don’t worry about whether your story is great literature – it doesn’t have to be. It just has to be real and authentic for where you are right now. Also don’t worry if your message evolves over time. One of the epiphanies I have had in going back and turning these posts into a book is that I am not the same panicked man I was last October – not to say that I don’t sometimes still panic. But I have grown, because any kind of writing (even just a short note) can be a journey of self discovery.

Second, don’t start your posts with, “Sorry, that this is a long post, but…” Nobody is handing out extra “brownie” points for being pithy. You matter. Your story matters. Just tell it.

In Christ, Amen ☩

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A prayer for when you are despairing…

“Blessed are You, Lord God, King of the Universe. It is right that I should at all times and in all circumstances bless You for Your involvement in our lives. But today I want to bless You especially for Your intimacy with, and closeness to my heart. There are many times that I feel so broken and alone that I just want to sit and stop feeling anything. Thank you for being with me in those dark times. Thank you for surrounding me with Your children to reassure me. Take me by the hand and lead me back to hope. Give me the courage to keep reaching out. Amen.”

A New Kind of Safe…

This post describes, in part, the effects of a degenerative neurological condition called Huntington’s Disease. Any negative behavior on the part of my wife should be attributed to that condition. Any negative behavior on the part of myself should be attributed to my need for God’s ongoing grace.

Resuming where we left off last week…

At some point our family moved to Texas for the milder winters. The HD was beginning to affect Janet’s balance and northern winters had her house-bound for months at a time. We chose Texas because our son was living in the Waco area. We ended up south of Houston because that is where God made an opening for us.

As time progressed, Janet’s condition continued to grow worse. Her anger got more physically violent and bruises she had been giving me were replaced by cuts and scratches. Her irrational outbursts meant that she was increasingly incapable of holding a reasonable conversation. She also became very sensitive about personal space. If someone was within 3 or 4 feet of her, they were (in her view) right on top of her. For example, she would tell me to do something, but then would get angry and start yelling because I was too close to her.

The most hurtful thing, however, was that she started questioning that I really loved her. She began to say that the only reason I was still with her was because I was afraid to move out. The truth is that I had decided long before that I was going to keep my promises and remain committed to her, no matter what. In previous relationships, I probably would have cleared out when things started getting bad – in fact I did, twice. This time, though, I decided that for once I was going to keep my word – even if she didn’t understand it or recognize what I was doing. Besides, I really do love her and the only thing that I can think of that could be worse than having HD would be to have it alone.

For a long time, I was at a total loss for how to deal with this situation, so regretfully I defaulted to getting angry. Then to add insult to (physical) injury, social workers and others were constantly asking her if SHE felt safe at home. How about me? Didn’t I count? Don’t I get to feel “safe”? Why didn’t I even get asked the question?

And hanging over the whole mess was the way that I thought that the modern legal system works. If the woman is abused, the husband quite rightly goes to jail. But if the husband is abused, the husband still goes to jail – after all, he must have caused it right? She held it over my head that unless I got my life sorted out and stopped “making her” get angry she could and would get me arrested – and then I would lose my job and be, “…left living on the street.” Eventually, she did try reporting me once but, thankfully, the situation wasn’t as grim as I thought. The state investigator, after talking to her doctors, social workers and the pastor of our church, realized what was going on and closed the case.

Thank you Jesus.

During this time, I spent a lot of time thinking (and complaining) about safety, and what it means to be safe. In the end, I realized that God has a dramatically different view of safety than I do. To me, safety meant to be in an environment where I am not at risk of injury or death. To God, safety is to be doing what He wants you to be doing – which for me was to take care of Janet as best as I could every day. While, I still don’t get it 100% right, with God’s help I am getting better.

Eventually I discovered is that the fundamental issue with safety is that I wanted to be able to evaluate whatever situation that I found myself in and determine for myself what risks were involved. Naturally, I then desired the opportunity and right to choose to opt-out of scenarios that I deemed to be “unsafe”. What that choice really boiled down to, though, was a heart-felt desire for comfort and predictability.

For God, on the other hand, His primary concern for me is that I be the best me possible – which, interestingly, is something that is only attainable if your life isn’t comfortable and predictable. The motive force behind this drive is a facet of Divine Love that wants us to grow, expand and mature because He knows that this sort of development is good for us and, in the long-term, makes us the strongest and happiest. Just an important, though, is the fact that God has things for us to do, and we need to get ready.

Getting back to my case, why am I needing to go through everything that was, and is, happening? God has something in store for me that, through faith, I can only assume will be wonderful. Unfortunately, who I am right now is not adequate to the “hack the mission” – as we used to say in the Air Force. Consequently, some remedial training is in order. God has a vision of who, not just I but, all of us can be. Moreover, He is relentless in seeing that each one of us conforms to that vision. To see what I mean, do a survey of the Old Testament and you’ll see that it is filled with references to God’s advanced planning for us and our lives. But you’ll also find a very clear description of God’s end goal, “You shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy.” Note particularly the word “shall” – God’s training program is not an elective course.

But all this discussion begs the really big question: We know that God loves us and cares for us, but is God really safe? If your definition of safe includes the concepts of comfort and predictability, the answer is unfortunately, “No, God is far from being safe.” However, if your definition of safe allows for God to stretch you, bump you around and maybe bloody your nose a bit to help you grow, then “Yes – God is as safe as it gets.”

Now all of these words sound great if you are, like me, the caretaker. But if they are to be really true, they have to be true for all of God’s children and not just a chosen few. So do these words also apply to, for example, people dying of incurable diseases – like Janet? What do they get out of these fine words? I believe a great deal.

I believe that Janet would be the first one to agree with the proposition that for a lesson to be learned, there has to be a teacher. In bearing up under the debilitating advances of HD, Janet is doing her part to help birth something new that will help the world. Janet is teaching everyone with whom she interacts about strength, faith and hope, but in this class, her lesson plan isn’t written on an easel, blackboard or even a set of PowerPoint slides. This time, the lesson plan that she’s presenting is literally her own body.

She has twice spoken to classes of future doctors so they can, through her, see and experience the symptoms of this rare disease. She has signed up to be an organ donor, and if in the end that donation is not possible, she has a backup plan of donating her body to a local medical school – a situation that she has called her, “last teaching assignment”. She can do these things because, even in her present condition, she has the confidence that God has her back and that when He finally brings her home, He will redeem all that is being held captive, perfect all that is corrupt, restore all that is lost and mend all that is broken.

In Christ, Amen ☩

A prayer for when you don’t feel safe…

“Blessed are You, Lord God, King of the Universe. It is right that I should at all times and in all circumstances bless You for all the ways that You protect us. But today I especially want to bless You for the times when You aren’t totally “safe”. Thank you for a love that desires to see me grow so much that it requires me to be, at times, far outside my comfort zone. When those times come up, and I don’t understand, please help me to remember that You always manage the risks to bless me and prepare me for the life that I have ahead. I earnestly desire to match the vision that You have for me. Amen”