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Dealing with dementia: What do we do when our client’s spouse dies?

Dealing with dementia: What do we do when our client’s spouse dies?

After B’s husband sadly passed away, it was decided not to tell her the news as she was unable to retain new information.

That first daunting night, J’s absence had shifted the atmosphere. My apprehension intensified as the emptiness hung heavy in the air. His bed lay there next to where B slept, empty for the first time in decades. Without her husband’s authority instigating the evening routine, no sooner had she gone to bed than she was up again, restlessly pacing the room.  

Spontaneously, I jumped into J’s empty bed. “I’m so tired” I said, stretching out my arms and yawning dramatically. “I’m not tired at all” she replied. Scanning the room for inspiration, I discovered a radio beside J’s bed. I found a station which resonated with B. Her restlessness slowly subsided as she sat on the bed and began singing to the music and, eventually, laying down. Still, she seemed agitated. Her hands were restless, fidgeting and pulling at the covers; her eyes wide open. I took her hand in mine and encouraged her not to sleep, but to relax and listen to the lovely music. She smiled and agreed. 

Suddenly struck by a powerful feeling of nostalgia that the music swept over me, I closed my eyes in concentration as I tried to place the song that was playing. I was overwhelmed by the emotional connection I had to it. I just couldn’t put my finger on it.

I looked over at B. Her eyelids becoming heavy, her hand movements slowing to a gentle sway, she was slowly dropping off. Reassured by her occasional glances to check I was still there, she finally fell fast asleep. I tip-toed out of the room.

Later that night it hit me that the song which had resonated so strongly that night was one from my childhood that I associated with comfort and happy memories. It made me think of Alzheimer’s. That ‘thing’ you can’t quite put your finger on, yet you know it makes you feel something. B felt something different in her room that night but couldn’t place it. By mirroring those familiar gestures - holding hands, giving her the cue to sleep - I allowed B to feel comfort and reassurance, recreating that nostalgic feeling of safety and solace.

“I slept like a log last night”, declared B, the next day. Music can be so healing. it had provided us both with a grounding moment before sleep. It helped B to unwind and allowed me to absorb the shock of that day.

B said “That’s your bed, and this is mine”, instructed B that evening, as we walked into the room. I took her cue, laid on J’s bed and starting yawning telling her how tired I felt. It became our new evening routine. Once she was asleep I would sneak out of the room.

The music continued to play, even during the day. As B wandered in and out of their room throughout the day, instead of mourning that feeling of something ‘missing’ that she couldn’t quite put her finger on, she instead felt an emotional connection to the music. Her room was now filled with friendship and music, and the family’s decision not to tell her had been respected. 

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