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Music, memory and love: A longtime couple renews their relationship every day

Alzheimer's can take a toll on love, but for some couples it offers new ways to connect. For Jerry and Elaine McClain, that bond is music.
/ Source: TODAY

Whoa, my love, my darling, I've hungered for your touch ...

The voice singing “Unchained Melody” floats down the quaint main street of Snohomish, Washington, weaving into shops whenever a door opens.

That voice belongs to Jerry McClain, 81, who can be found there many afternoons wearing a suit and hat, singing standards from years gone by. At his side — always — is his wife, Elaine, whom he met more than 40 years ago.

As he sings into the microphone, Elaine whispers into the ear of a bystander, “He has Alzheimer’s.”

These days, words sometime fail Jerry but music never does. Elaine says he knows hundreds of songs by memory. On their first date four decades ago, they went to a park where he serenaded her for more than an hour.

Now, in addition to performing regularly in public, he sings to her daily at home — part of their special language of love, a way to communicate even as details fade.

For each of the estimated 5.3 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s, a constellation of friends, family and, particularly, partners are also deeply affected. The bonds between a couple change, as short-term memory grows evasive and confusion sets in.

While Alzheimer’s can take a profound toll on relationships, for some couples it may also offer new ways to connect. For Jerry and Elaine, a key part of that bond is music, shown in recent studies to help aid cognition in a person with Alzheimer’s.

And for some longtime couples, even as Alzheimer’s advances, love can deepen, says Dr. Stephen Benson, a clinical psychologist in Wichita, Kansas, specializing in working with people affected by Alzheimer’s.

Music, memory and love: A longtime couple renews their bond every day
Elaine McClain cares for her husband Jerry McClain in Snohomish, Washington. Jerry suffers with Alzheimer's Disease. Elaine uses several strategies to keep her husband engaged in life.Robert Hood

“There is a long history that gets put into play,” says Benson, who counsels couples where one partner has Alzheimer’s and the other doesn’t. “When there’s a history of investment in each other and strong connection to each other,” he says, that bond can become even more profound.

Related: 'I'm learning in a new way': B. Smith on living with Alzheimer's

‘Our purpose is to let our love shine’

Elaine, 64, vividly remembers the day she met Jerry, in September, 1974. She was sitting at the counter at a restaurant in Lafayette, Indiana, when he walked in.

“When our eyes met, neither of us had a question we’d be together the rest of our lives,” she says.

As she tells this story, Jerry, beside her, softly begins to sing,

Try to remember the kind of September, when life was slow and oh so mellow...…

Elaine rubs Jerry’s shoulder and holds his hand more tightly. Tears brim in his eyes. “She is everything to me,” he says, then continues to sing.

Deep in December it's nice to remember, although you know the snow will follow …

When Jerry, who is African American, and Elaine, who is white, were first together, marriage between mixed-race couples had been legal in all states for only a few years. Elaine was staying at a rooming house when they met and was asked to leave because, she was told, “we don’t allow our girls to date that way.”

Deciding their love transcended controversy, they committed themselves to each other and Elaine used Jerry’s last name, but they chose not to marry legally.

“We ran into (racism) all the time but because our love was so strong we couldn’t let it be a part of us,” she says. “Our purpose is to let our love shine.”

A daughter, Anjelika, was born in 1975. “Our lives became so rich when she was born,” says Jerry. The family ran restaurants together in Arizona, Oregon and Idaho. Elaine and Anjelika waited tables while Jerry cooked and sang for customers. In the late ‘90s, they moved to Massachusetts as Elaine earned a teaching degree at Smith College.

“I didn’t lose Jerry among 2,500 women,” Elaine says with a laugh. “We just grew together.”

The day their world changed

In the McClain’s bedroom, Elaine’s photo is on the wall next to Jerry’s side of the bed, and vice versa, so that no matter which direction either of them look when they wake, the first thing they’ll see is the other.

Dozens of other photos hang on the walls of their home: Jerry wearing his Army uniform during the Korean War, their three grandchildren, their restaurants, and one particularly significant photo taken on Mother’s Day 2010.

That’s the day Elaine knew her world was changing.

She left Jerry at a restaurant with friends that day, having told him she’d be back shortly while she went to visit her parents. When she returned, he was outside waiting, worried and disoriented.

Soon after, Jerry was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Elaine retired from teaching to focus on Jerry full time. In the last six years, they’ve hardly been apart.

“It’s very satisfying,” says Jerry. “She’s all I want and all I need.”

He begins singing again.

I see trees of green, red roses too. I see them bloom for me and you. And I think to myself, what a wonderful girl ... he finishes, pointing at Elaine.

There are hard times. When they get frustrated with each other, they’ve learned to stop and let time pass. They take yoga together to release stress. Elaine educates herself about Alzheimer’s and tries not to take it personally when Jerry gets upset. And humor helps, they say.

There’s a joke Jerry plays when people ask about his Alzheimer’s. He’ll look at Elaine and, with a straight face, ask, “Now, what’s your name?” And then the two of them will laugh together.

(He tried it at a neurology visit, prompting Elaine's follow-up phone call to explain he wasn’t serious.)

“We don’t ever want to be away from each other,” Elaine says.

An outsider might think they were in the first blushes of romance.

Music, memory and love: A longtime couple renews their bond every day
Elaine McClain cares for her husband Jerry McClain in Snohomish, Washington. Jerry suffers with Alzheimer's Disease. Elaine uses several strategies to keep her husband engaged in life.Robert Hood

“The love they share, it’s electric,” says their friend Annie Dottai, who owns Grilla Bites, a restaurant they frequent, where Jerry has sung to customers.

Benson, the psychologist, says that with Alzheimer’s, couples can “recreate and co-create their relationship every day.” In that way, it is like a new romance, full of discovery. “It’s not letting the disease process dictate how you go about this person today.”

'I choose you again'

A few years ago, Jerry and Elaine were legally married.

“It’s a way of saying ‘I choose you again,’” Elaine explains.

Elaine says Jerry’s Alzheimer’s hasn’t progressed much in recent years. Singing, which Jerry does several times a week at senior centers or downtown, may have something to do with that, speculates Benson, who does not know the couple personally.

“Music touches different parts of the brain,” he says. “It’s one of the last sensors to be impacted by Alzheimer’s.” Some clients he has seen will respond to music, even when nothing else seems to reach them.

Jerry and Elaine know that in the years to come Alzheimer’s will likely progress, but they choose instead to remain firmly rooted in the moment.

“There will never be another time in your life, just what’s right here and now,” says Jerry. “I don’t worry too much about Alzheimer’s. I’ve got so many people who remember (for me) all the things I’ve done. The most important thing is for me to maintain my connection to Elaine.”

On Valentine’s Day this year, the two of them plan to attend a concert of love songs.

“We’ll just sit in each other’s arms and hold hands,” says Elaine. “And just be.”

Linda Dahlstrom Anderson is a writer and editor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She lives in Seattle with her husband, Mike, and her son, Gabriel. Follow her on twitter: @Linda_Dahlstrom