I still remember the day I first met Mr. Abe Wiebe. On a January morning in 2009, I walked into the locked care unit where I run a music therapy group every other week, and Abe greeted me at the door. “Say, that’s quite a thing you’ve got there,” said the spry 78 year old, pointing at my guitar. “Ill give you fifty bucks for it!” This was my first clue that Abe, who had just recently moved into the care home, was an avid music lover. I knew from experience that this would make it easy to connect with him; what I could not have guessed was how much he, the client, would be teaching me, the therapist, in the weeks and months that followed.
Jan. 21, 2009 – I get to know Abe a bit better, as we sing and play drums, together with about 8 other residents. I learn he has a history of playing guitar and banjo, and that he was grieving the loss of his instruments; he believed they never made it to a good home. I also catch a glimpse of the dementia that is slowly taking over his abilities. He often cant find the right words, and his comments don’t always seem to fit the situation.
Feb. 18 – Abe is drawn to some hand rhythm instruments I have brought along, and he helps me see them in a new light. I’ve never thought of a cabasa as a “tractor air filter”, a maraca as a “light bulb”, and a smaller shaker as “another light bulb, but with lower voltage.” The paddle drum he sees immediately as a “frying pan”; this is in fact, the best way to describe its shape.
March 4 – Today I roll my chair up beside Abe and position my guitar on his lap. He digs right in like a hungry teenager, picking and strumming with his right hand while I chord with my left. Mentally, I kick myself for not trying this sooner.
Over the following months, the unfortunate realities of dementia begin to set in. Abe rarely sits in one place for any amount of time, and staff are kept busy, patiently helping him navigate his environment without stumbling into the other residents. He can only be described as looking thoroughly lost. According to the staff, music therapy is practically the only time Abe is settled and content. And yet he is so much more than settled. He sings the bass lines of “When the Roll” and “Sweet By and By” with gusto. He improvises creative drum rolls. He laughs, and shouts a cattle-driving “Hiii-yup!” during an old favorite song. Even at times when he gets up to wander around the room, he carries a drum around with him, keeping perfect time.
May 11, 2011 – Today when I arrive on the unit, Abe is seated in a wheelchair. Staff inform me he was at risk of falling. It is easy to see Abe as a frailer, less “able” old man. He quickly puts this image to rest, however, by bending down and trading his drum for a slipper, which he continues to drum on as if nothing had changed. Not long after this session, Abe passed away. It was clear that his sense of humour and love of music had remained right to the end.
Mr. Wiebe’s story, while special, is just one of many I have witnessed during my work for Eden. Our Creator God has placed within each of us a connection with music that we will likely never fully understand. In addition to making life in a care home easier, musical connections can give family and staff a glimpse of the person that once was. It is my job – and my privilege – to reveal that connection with every person I work with.
Music Therapist Joel Klassen