While caring for her father diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, author and broadcaster Mary Ellen Geist, a former jazz singer, always found a song to sing with him at the start or the end of his day.
Whether taking a walk or dining at meal times or even when bathing him, songs served as their language of communication.
Her father, Woody, a longtime engineering company president, loved music and sang for 40 years with a 12-member a cappella group.
“Music changed everything in the way I was able to communicate with my father,” she said. “It made him come alive. I don’t know how it worked in the brain, but music seemed to cue him to wake up; he would remember verses, sing entire songs. It elevated his mood, but when he was done he didn’t remember what he did.”
The 56-year-old Geist stressed the importance of finding creative ways to deal with a loved one’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis Thursday at Reading Hospital’s 10th annual observance of Older Americans Month in May.
She spoke to an audience of about 250 senior citizens and caregiving professionals in the Crowne Plaza Reading, Wyomissing.
Geist, 56, left her job as a New York City CBS radio news anchor in 2005 to return to Michigan to help her mother, Rosemary, care for her father, Woody.
She wrote of her experience in a book, “Measure of the Heart: Caring for a Parent with Alzheimer’s,” a gentle memoir that shares her lessons learned.
Geist also is an advocate for caregivers taking the necessary time to care for themselves so they don’t suffer burnout.
“I read a statistic that 62 percent of caregivers died before their patient died,” she said.
Geist’s father died at age 83 in 2010 after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in the early 1990s, she said. Geist helped her mother care for him for nearly the last six years of his life.
“I was able to hold my father’s hand at the end of his life,” she said, describing how as a former jazz singer she tapped into her father’s love of music and song.
For Geist, the turning point that pushed her to abandon a successful media job and assume the role of caregiver was a visit with her father during his early Alzheimer’s stages. She saw that he had mistakenly put on his wife’s powder-blue coat to accompany her for an autumn walk.
In a lucid moment, Woody told her, “I have your mother’s coat on, don’t I?”
“I got off the hamster wheel then, declined lucrative job offers,” Geist said. “I wanted to come home to have time to say goodbye to my father. I wanted to make sure my dad’s hair was combed properly and he wasn’t wearing someone else’s coat.”
Geist soon discovered she even faced more challenges than that.
Her touching journey put her squarely in the corner of 50 million American caregivers, 11 million of them taking care of someone with some form of dementia, she said.
“At the time, I didn’t have a husband, children, pet or plant, so it was the right thing for me to do,” she said.
Geist said she wrote of her caregiving experiences on a CBS radio website at the request of her former executives and got an overwhelming response, more than she ever received when she covered some major news stories.
With one in eight baby boomers expected to get Alzheimer’s, Geist said America must continue to find ways through music, art, athletics, pet therapy and even the way we use language to reach people where they are.
Citation: Posten, Bruce. “Caregivers told be creative with Alzheimer’s patients.” PennLive.com. http://www.pennlive.com/newsflash/index.ssf/story/caregivers-told-be-creative-with-alzheimers-patients/b2b1185d46e04d419f853658b322f4c8