Taboo: Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s Disease may seem an unlikely topic to deal with in song. It’s certainly difficult to deal with in a way that isn’t too maudlin or melodramatic, and the sensitive nature of a degenerative disease that robs the inflicted of their memory has not enticed many songwriters or artists.

When one of Nashville’s best writers, Jon Vezner, penned a song that dealt with the topic, even his future wife, Kathy Mattea, was taken aback by it. He played it for her after the #1 party for her hit “Goin’ Gone,” as she recalls in the liner notes of The Definitive Collection:

We went upstairs to the listening room, and when the first chorus went down, my head spun around. I knew the story, and I couldn’t believe he wrote it in a song.

The song, “Where’ve You Been”, tells the story of Claire and Edwin, a husband and wife who are married for decades, and eventually climaxes with a tender scene in a hospital bed:

They’d never spent a night apart,
For sixty years, she heard him snore.
Now they’re in a hospital,
In separate beds on different floors.

Claire soon lost her memory,
Forgot the names of family.
She never spoke a word again,
Then one day, they wheeled him in.
He held her hand and stroked her head,
In a fragile voice she said:

“Where’ve you been?
“I’ve looked for you forever and a day.
“Where’ve you been?
“I’m just not myself when you’re away.”

The scene is so perfectly constructed that it’s hard to believe it really happened, though Mattea’s reverent delivery indicates otherwise. She recalls:

It’s a true story about Jon’s grandparents. They had both gotten very sick and were in the same hospital, but didn’t know it. His grandmother had been slowly losing it, and she didn’t recognize anybody. She was in unfamiliar surroundings, so she finally quit talking altogether. Jon was there visiting, and he was up seeing his grandfather; he said to the nurse, “Has anybody brought him down to see her?” She said no, and he asked if he could do that. They said yes, so he wheeled his grandfather into his grandmother’s room. His grandfather kept stroking her hair, saying, “Look at them hair, nobody has hair like grandma,” and she looked at him and said, “Where have you been?” It was the first thing she had said in weeks.

When Jon told me the story for the first time, it was before we had even gotten engaged, and he just cried and cried. When he played the song for me and the first chorus cam around, I knew where he was going with the lyric, and I just couldn’t believe he could be that vulnerable as a writer, to put that moment in a song.

The song was Mattea’s biggest hit, winning her a Grammy. It also won Song of the Year at the Grammys, CMA’s and ACM’s. While Mattea had wondered to herself, “Do people want to hear this on the way to work?”, the song struck a deep chord, and it was the first time Alzheimer’s had been captured in a mainstream hit song.

However, it did not start a trend, as the subject matter remains difficult to deal with in song. Recently, more writers and artists in country music have attempted it, though, including one legend and the two biggest bands in country music, all of which have had a song on the topic on their most recent albums.

Reba McEntire has a flair for melodrama, particularly in her later work, so you can be excused for worrying that a song she’d record would be high on theatrics and low on emotional weight. You’d be wrong. “Moving Oleta” appears on her most recent studio release, Room to Breathe, and while it wasn’t released as a single, it is the strongest work she’s done in a decade.

The narrator of “Where’ve You Been” focuses on the husband and wife equally, but “Moving Oleta”, while still in the third person, emphasizes the struggle of Oleta’s husband, who has been forced to put his wife into a nursing home:

Moving Oleta was the hardest thing he’d done
The nurse’s saw an old woman crying, but he saw the love of his life
She don’t know where she is, but she knows this isn’t home
Love is a hard, hard road

The song builds up slowly, until it reaches a crescendo as the narrator releases the anger, frustration and pain the old man is feeling.

He woke up each morning and drove into town
He stayed all day ’till her dinner came
Then he took her to her room, leaned on her wheelchair like a walker
And covered her with a quit that she made
Only God and a couple of nurses helped the old man shoulder the road
Love is a hard, hard road

And he said
They tell me this is all that’s left
Say this hell on earth is best
I list all those reasons and I still don’t understand it
He cursed his body old and weak
Tears of failure burned his cheek
And he said
Oh, don’t you know I prayed to die before this day
Love is a hard, hard road

McEntire had dealt with elderly neglect in song before (“All Dressed Up (With Nowhere to Go)”, but paints an even darker picture with the coda to “Moving Oleta”:

There’s a shadow much darker than the valley of death
When you fear the reaper might not come today
They line ’em up in La-z-boys out in the sunroom
The TV keeps the quiet away
She can’t recall his name
And she’s the only love he’s known
Love is a hard, hard road

“Where’ve You Been” and “Moving Oleta” both approach the disease through narrators who focus on the husband and wife in the story. On new albums from Rascal Flatts and Dixie Chicks, the songs are from the perspective of the grandchild of the woman with Alzheimer’s, with very different results.

The Flatts track is titled “Ellsworth” and it appears on their new release, Me and My Gang. It is so cloyingly sentimental and poorly constructed that it sounds like the product of an approaching writer’s deadline, rather than being grounded in reality:

Grandma burned the biscuits
Nearly took the house down with it
Now she’s in assisted livin’
We all knew that day would come

It gets worse…

We knew she was too gone to drive
The day she parked on I-65
Found her on the shoulder cryin’
She didn’t know where she was

It’s like her mind just quit
Oh, but bring up Grandpa
It’s like someone flipped a switch

The premise is she can’t remember today but anything associated with her late husband she still remembers:

A handsome boy in army green
A tear on his face, down on a knee
Shaky voice, a diamond ring
She’ll put you in that town
Tomorrow she won’t remember
What she did today
But just ask her about Ellsworth,
Kansas 1948

The subject matter is handled far more successfully on the new Dixie Chicks album, Taking the Long Way. Natalie Maines was inspired by her ailing grandmother to write “Silent House”, with assistance from her bandmates and Neil Finn. The song captures the pain of watching someone you love suffer from illness, and is surprising in its resolve, which has the singer vowing to carry on the memories that her grandmother has forgotten:

And I will try to connect
All the pieces you left
I will carry it on
And let you forget
And I’ll remember the years
When your mind was clear
How the laughter and life
Filled up this silent house

Perhaps the reason the song works so well it the image of the “Silent House” resonates deeply with anybody who has watched a parent or grandparent slowly begin to fade away. The house begins to feel like an empty shell, where every small corner holds a memory of that person that you’d forgotten, and it comes flooding back to you:

These walls have eyes
Rows of photographs
And faces like mine
Who do we become
Without knowing where
We started from

It’s true I’m missing you
As I stand alone in your room

“Silent House” manages to convey the pain of losing someone you love, even though they’re already here, because they’ve become a shadow of the strong and vibrant person you knew growing up. But it’s the inherent wisdom in the lyric that makes the song so poignant: the younger generation carries on the life and memory of the people who raised them, and they live on through that. As Maines told USA Today earlier this year:

The song’s message is “that it’s OK for you to forget. I’ll be able to carry on your life, or your history.”

Country music seems ideally suited to deal with the big changes and major crossroads of life. Hopefully, more of our best artists will challenge themselves to deal with the subject matter of degenerative diseases and aging in a way that will enlighten and comfort listeners.


  1. Tim Rushlaw wrote a terrific song a few years ago called “She Misses Him” :

    “She shaves his face
    She combs his hair
    She helps him find his rocking chair
    She cooks his meals
    She wipes his mouth
    And the window that he’s looking out
    She reads him books
    She speaks his name
    Oh every day is much the same
    She sighs that sigh from deep within
    The one that says
    She misses him”

    The terror of Alzheimers is the very mundane nature of the disease . I am the legal guardian of my aunt, a very feisty, argumentative woman who hasn’t spoken in two years and hasn’t known who I am for at least five years. When my uncle passed away in April 2005 , I was the closest relative well enough to look after her matters. It is very hard on the survivors remembering what is and dealing with what is. I think Tim’s song captures the essense of the problem better than any other song I’ve heard.

    Tim’s CD came out in 2001 , and while the CD wasn’t anything special, this song deserves to be remembered

  2. typo – this sentence should read : “It is very hard on the survivors remembering what WAS and dealing with what is.”

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