I used to ignore articles that say cognitive decline slows if I eliminate sugar or play bridge. I found work-arounds instead. When I lost my numbers I set up automatic bill payments with the bank. I can never remember if choir practice is on the fourth or fifth floor; I simply follow my fellow singers. And I rely on my phone or friends to tell me the dates and times of my appointments, events and plans.
Memory loss has been gradual. I’m in good company though—my friends and I laugh when we can’t remember the name of the movie we just saw. But when I started hyperventilating with disabling anxiety in airports and receiving bizarre Chinese packages I’d ordered from ads on Face Book, I called Northwestern Hospital to see a
“Someone will call you back,” the receptionist said.
“Can’t I just make an appointment?”
“No. Someone needs to do an intake over the phone first.”
“No. Someone will call you.”
I missed the callback. Called again. Missed again. And again.
I felt like I was racing against the clock. Processing the TV news was becoming difficult. It moved too fast and I couldn’t retain information from one sentence to the next. To understand NPR’s Morning Edition, I had to stop getting dressed or making my bed, sit down with a cup of coffee and listen. Reading the news wasn’t impossible, just clunky. Some words on the page faded. Some didn’t. I went to the eye doctor three times within six months. She told me there was nothing wrong with my eyes or my vision.
I consulted Dr. Google. Indiscriminate shopping, getting lost, difficulty with numbers or language as well as forgetting dates, names and places are all a part of the normal aging process called cognitive decline. Researchers say eat right, exercise, socialize and learn something new to keep your brain from slipping past the point of no return. Some say singing actually heals the brain, so I joined the Good Memories Choir.
On the first day I hesitated accepting my songbook. Would I remember to bring it to weekly rehearsals? Would I even remember the day and time of weekly rehearsals? People asked me what “part” I sang. I had no idea.
“I have to sing the melody,” I said.
Alice sat next to me in the last row of the soprano section. I love to sing along but I know nothing about music. The singing was running ahead of me—I couldn’t catch the words. After singing a few songs, Alice showed me the soprano lines and suggested I highlight the words. She told me to sing the notes with the stems pointing up. I focused. I was learning a new language.
Good Memories is a choir of people with early-stage memory loss, their care partners and volunteers. I met the Google criteria for cognitive decline but I didn’t have an official diagnosis. I joined as a volunteer, unsure where, or even if, I fit. After singing every week for over a year, I never forget my songbook, the lyrics are nailed to the page and I follow the notes.
One of the first songs we sang, The impossible Dream, seemed impossible for me. There were too many words too close together. At the concert I sang every word. And Alice whispered, “You made it.”
Yes, I did. Just in time.
Learn more: Five Symptoms of Cognitive Decline
Join a choir! Jonathan Miller, Artistic Director of Good Memories Choir will help find one in your area. Contact him.
Treat yourself. Watch Judy Garland sing Just In Time