You could almost set your clock to it. Each day at about 4:00 p.m., Maria Consuela Martinez, a four foot and nine inches tall new Memory Care Unit patient, would let out a series of wild screeching sounds from her suite that would shake me to my core. These sounds were groans, a haunting death rattle and they sent shivers down my spine. To add insult to injury, our town was under a severe weather watch so Maria’s howling coupled with intense lightning strikes and thunder slams made everything and everyone feel grim. And the cherry on top of it all was no matter where you were in the building, Maria’s late afternoon wailings would find you:

• At Sam and Wes’ poker game in The Bar. Could hear it there.
• Whilst nosily (and rudely) sipping tea with Lillian’s Stitch and Bitch Club at Taste. Could hear it there.
• In Gwendolyn’s exercise class – Stretch – with music playing. Check. Could hear it there.
• With a Salon blow dryer on while Curly Sue’s hair was being styled straight. Could hear it there.

Even in…

• My room, practically on the other side of the building, with the door shut while I was doing my pre-dinner facial exercises.

(See, what I do is a series of facial movements where I think about smiling with my mouth, but do not actually smile with my mouth, but instead smile with my eyes. This raises my eyebrows and ears slightly, strengthening them. As a result, I strengthen the muscles that pull my face upward. This, followed by my lateral mouth movements while chewing at dinner has increased muscle tone in my face – thereby giving me a natural facelift and having me looking so much younger than Gwendolyn. But I digress…)

I could still hear Maria while doing the aforementioned while chanting “vibrant skin, vibrant skin”. There was no escaping her arias from hell. Or so we all thought.

Turns out Avanti’s Nurse Sarah was onto something, something to soothe the beast that ailed us: music.

Sarah had recently attended a local film festival where she viewed a film called “Alive Inside,” which chronicled the astonishing responses of individuals who have been revitalized through the simple experience of listening to customized music on headphones. For many of the film subject’s suffering from dementia, hearing the beloved music of their early years awakened memories and helped patients temporarily reconnect with themselves and their loved ones—sometimes just for a few minutes. The film also revealed the uniquely human connection we all find in music and how its healing power can triumph where prescription medicine falls short.

Sarah had interviewed Maria’s family and learned she loved the singer, dancer and actress Julie Andrews and the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, composers and lyricists who had written music for films in the 1960s like one of my favorites, The Sound of Music.

As 4:00 p.m. was nearing, I covered my ears with my hands, bracing myself for the auditory horror that usually ensued, but strangely nothing happened. I waited. five minutes passed. Nothing. Not a peep from Maria. All that could be heard was the raging weather emanating from the closed windows. I waited some more. But still nothing happened. No wild screeching. Avanti was eerily quiet during Maria’s “witching hour”.

Curious, I popped out of my suite and picked up Gwendolyn who was just outside of the Stretch class. Then, we picked up Curly Sue coming out of The Salon. Then, the three of us joined Sam, Wes and Lillian in the area between the bar and Taste.

Suddenly, we all heard a loud GASPING sound followed by the words “Noflakes that stay on my dose and eyeflashes…” and raucous clapping of hands and mutterings followed by “… paper packages tied up with string…”

My posse and I scurried towards Maria’s room. Her door was wide open and several of the staff were standing around her. She was dressed in a pastel-colored floral nightgown wearing headphones and sitting in her wheelchair. Everyone was smiling and patting their teary eyes with tissues. Nurse Sarah was adjusting the volume on her iPhone that was connected to Maria’s headphones. Something extraordinary was happening. Everyone looked at Maria as if she was about to say something, do something profound. For a few beats, there was silence. I looked at Lillian, who shrugged.

Then, Maria started to shuffle her feet, tilt her head and wave her hands like “jazz hands” slightly above the arm rests on the char. She seemed to be “coming alive” through the music.

“Silver white winters that melt into springs…” Maria belted out like a drunken Broadway diva.

Maria’s ghastly moans had been replaced by “…a few of my favorite things!” she blurted out even louder than before. The volume at which she sang was startling. Boy, did this gal have a set of pipes! I recognized the lyrics! She was singing “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music. This is the scene where Julie Andrews, in the role of The Governess for the Von Trapp family, sings a song about happy things in efforts to cheer up the children who sit on her bed in pajamas one stormy night.

With tears of joy in her eyes Nurse Sarah unplugged the headphones from her phone so we could all hear the music briefly together before the lyrics started up again. We were charmed. All charmed at what was happening. Maria appeared to be experiencing joy. Internal joy. Maybe for the first time in a long time. I couldn’t stop smiling watching Maria groove to the music. No one could. The was an electric, palpable energy in the air.

“When the dog bites,” I sang as I sat down on the edge of Maria’s bed.

Nurse Sarah wheeled Maria towards the bed’s side.

“When the bee stings,” Lillian and Gwendolyn sang as they playfully tossed and fluffed Maria’s bed pillows.

Sarah and an assistant lifted Maria from her wheelchair and tucked her into her bed.

“When I’m feeling sad,” Wes and Sam sang as they took a respective bedside and took Maria’s hands in theirs.

“I simply remember my favorite things,” Curly Sue sang as she sat on the foot of Maria’s bed. Then Nurse Sarah piped the music back into Maria’s headphones.

“…and then I don’t feel….so bad,” sang Maria at the top of her small but mighty lungs!

Curly Sue, Lillian, Gwendolyn, Wes, Sam and I all bowed in unison to Maria who smiled. The thunderous applause drowned out the storm outside of Avanti. The
4:00 pm witching hour is hereby forever retitled music empathy hour!