This week, the music world lost another great. Glen Campbell, the talented singer and guitarist passed away at age 81. What struck me about his death was that he died without remembering who he was. Anyone who heard him play guitar or listened to him sing those great Jimmy Webb ballads recognized his talent immediately.
Before he became a solo phenomenon, he was a very sought after studio and touring musician because of his talent on the guitar. He played on some very famous singles and albums including The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.
His diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease struck me as a cruel end to someone who had brought so much joy to so many during his career. I last saw him on Conan O’Brien’s show as he was in the midst of his farewell tour. He struggled noticeably as he played the guitar, an instrument that was an extension of his body in his younger years. It made me sad. His death reminded me of his sadness.
This story, What’s That Music, is my imagined version of what he went through along with his family. It is not based on fact other than a little research into the disease. I empathize with anyone that is going through this disease, either themselves or through a family member. I hope you enjoy this story which is my tribute to the great Glen Campbell.
What’s That Music?
Charlie returned from the dining room at the Folsom Estates Assisted Living/Nursing Home. He was tired, but the meat loaf was better than usual tonight. Those people had been by to visit him today. He felt like he should know them by now. They seemed familiar and they seemed to know him well enough, but he couldn’t place them. At least they were nice to him. Not everybody was nice to him.
He sat down in his bed and waited for the nice lady to come and help him get changed into his pajamas. He was embarrassed at first. He had to wear a diaper. This damned old age was a terrible thing to deal with. She was so nice and professional that it didn’t seem embarrassing any more. In fact, he looked forward to the fresh feeling of being cleaned up and outfitted with a new, dry diaper before bed.
His days were filled with very simple pleasures. Breakfast, watch television, lunch, watch more television, dinner and then bed. Folsom Estates was a very nice place. The food was good, even though they had to grind it up like baby food these days. Charlie’s throat wasn’t what it used to be. Swallowing anything with a consistency thicker than mashed potatoes was a chore. He missed being able to tear into a nice juicy steak. It was a shame that he could only remember what he could no longer do. The rooms were nice and the grounds were kept very well. He wasn’t sure how he could afford to live here, but they hadn’t kicked him out yet and that was a good sign.
The nice lady came in on cue and helped Charlie get cleaned up and ready for bed. His bed was very comfortable and Charlie was tired. What he looked forward to most at bed time was that music. The nice lady always put a disc in the little player that one of the nice visiting people had given him. Every night, that music would put him to sleep, but it did so much more. Something about it, something just out of the grasp of his memory, was therapeutic for him. He couldn’t quite grab on to the threads of the memory, but that music somehow took him back to what he assumed was his youth. It made him think of a time when he wasn’t living at Folsom Estates, although he couldn’t remember where he had lived before. It took him to a time when he thought about travel and about enjoying that music like this.
It was always the same singer. Sweet melodic ballads with lilting guitar accompaniment and, on some songs, thick orchestral arrangements. The songs were enjoyable and helped Charlie to clear his jumbled mind each night and fall asleep.
“I’m afraid your father is starting to progress more rapidly into the third stage as we feared.”
Nicole Belford-Andrews digested the words that Dr. Parvanti had said. Her father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease a mere three years ago. He was forgetting words and other things that had come naturally to him for years.
“How…how long does he have?”
“It’s hard to tell. He’s beginning to shut down physically. His swallowing is becoming an issue. We may have to consider a feeding tube soon. As for his memory, he seems to retain things day-to-day, but he doesn’t seem to remember names or faces at all. How has he been with you and your family?”
At this question, Nicole lost her battle with retaining the tears that were struggling to leak from her eyes. They began to run freely down her face.
“He just knows that we are the people who visit. He doesn’t remember who we are or any of our names. The only time his memory comes back, just a bit, is when we hand him a guitar. He can still strum a few chords, but that’s it.”
“That’s probably just muscle memory fighting its way to the surface. This is typical for someone who has engaged in a repeated pattern of physical behavior over a period of time.”
Nicole considered her next question carefully.
“He’s never going to get better, is he Doctor?”
“I’m afraid not, Ms. Andrews. He will decline rapidly from here. I think it’s time to consider our options.”
“What options are those?” Nicole asked, knowing she didn’t want to hear them.
“Well, we are already providing part-time hospice care. I think it’s time to move to a more full-time arrangement to make his last weeks or months.”
“Hospice? Does that mean he’s…he’s near the end.”
Dr. Parvanti carefully considered his answer.
“I’m afraid so. The Alzheimer’s has been very aggressive in his case.”
“Okay, doctor. I guess that’s the next step.”
Charlie woke up from an unusually deep sleep. He felt more tired than usual. He also felt a tugging sensation in his side. He tried to reach down and see what it was, but he found his right hand restricted from IV tubes that were attached to it. When he reached with his left hand across his body, he found a bandage on his right side with a tube coming out of it. The tube was capped off on the end. He felt intense pain when he touched the tube. He was confused and scared. He didn’t know where he was, or frankly, who he was at that moment. The only comfort was that someone had turned on that music. It was comforting and familiar to him. He knew he had heard it before, but he just couldn’t remember where or when. The words seemed familiar, but he couldn’t remember them enough to sing along. When he did remember a word, his mind and mouth could not agree on how to vocalize it. He was very tired and sore as he drifted off to sleep.
“The patient has undergone a routine percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy (PEG) insertion and is ready to begin receiving nutrition in this way. The procedure was initiated due to dysphagia. The PEG will be put on a routine maintenance schedule and food intake will be regulated to prevent aspiration”
Doctor Parvanti dictated the procedure that Charlie had undergone. His difficulty swallowing had passed the point where it would be difficult for him to intake food by mouth. In Alzheimer patients, this was a routine occurrence, but it also highly increased their chances of infection, especially pneumonia.
“Doctor,” a voice interrupted. “Mr. Belford is awake. He seems disoriented and uncomfortable with the tube. Should we increase the sedation?”
It was the voice of Charlie’s round-the-clock care nurse that had been assigned. In this final stage of Alzheimer’s, it was crucial that a patient have someone present to make sure their needs were met and that they didn’t become disoriented and try to wander off. The combination of severe memory loss, dementia and failing physical abilities made them prone to injury.
“Let’s get the PEG flushed and change the dressing. He should be ready for you to do an initial feeding,” Dr. Parvanti said.
Nurse Ramona Sanchez lingered.
“Was there something else?”
“It’s just. This is a sad case. He doesn’t remember who he was, but so many others do. It seems so cruel.”
Dr. Parvanti let out a sigh.
“Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease. For people who are brilliant or have special talents, it is especially painful to watch those abilities wither away.”
“I know. This one has hit me harder than most.”
“It has affected all of us. All we can do is make Mr. Belford’s final days comfortable and help his family through this.”
“I will do my best, doctor. Thank you for listening.”
“No problem. Let me know if you have any difficulties.”
Charlie was sleeping a lot these days. With the insertion of the feeding tube, he didn’t visit with the other residents much. That was fine with him. He couldn’t remember their names and his ability to speak had all but disappeared. He could only give them a variety of facial expressions in an attempt to communicate. He mostly sat in his easy chair watching television and listening to that music. That music. The nice lady was here almost all the time now and he was glad to have her help. He did feel moments of anger when he couldn’t do things for himself, but she never made him feel guilty and always anticipated what he needed.
The people who visited seemed to be coming more often. They would sit and hold his hand and show him pictures. The pictures were nice, but he had no idea who the people in them were. They kept pointing to one young man and telling him that it was his younger self. If that was true, he wasn’t too bad looking in those days so long ago when he could remember who he was and what he did.
His days were a cycle of sleep, watch television, sleep, walk a short distance, get cleaned up and get put to bed. He had nothing to look forward to except the human contact from the nice caretaker lady and the visitors. Every so often, while he was listening to that music, he would feel a warm tear drift down his face. He wasn’t sure why.
The mood in the room was somber. Four of Charlie’s five children, ten of his grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren alternated in platoons spending time with him. He was confined to his bed and drifted in and out of consciousness. His raspy breathing indicated that his time was short. There were six to eight people in the room with him at any one time. Dr. Parvanti and Nurse Sanchez checked in frequently, but tried to give the family privacy with their patriarch as he approached the end of his life. In the background, that music played. It was that same prodigious guitar player singing lilting ballads and country tunes. It seemed to comfort all of them. Finally, at about 10PM, with everyone crammed into his room, Charlie Bedford expired. That music continued to play in the background with various family members singing along to the songs that were so much a part of their lives.
August 8, 2017
Reports are coming in that the world has lost a beloved musical genius tonight. Charlie Belford, the renowned singer and musician, passed away peacefully surrounded by his family in hospice care. Belford was known as a much sought after studio guitar player in his early career. Many top 40 songs contain his masterful work as a musician and backup singer. In the late 1960s, he broke out as a solo artist and went on to have numerous top 40 hits and best-selling albums. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2011 and, after a final farewell tour, he entered a nursing care facility in 2013. He is survived by his wife, five children and several grand-children and great grandchildren.
The family thanks you for respecting their privacy. In lieu of flowers, please make contributions to the Alzheimer’s Association in his name. A public ceremony celebrating his life will be held at some point in the future.