Dementia is one of the scariest and heartbreaking diseases that a family can go through. Known as a broad category of brain diseases, dementia causes a long-term and often gradual decrease in a person’s ability to think and remember, affecting the patient’s daily life. Mary-Lou Versteegh was like most patients with dementia. She lost her ability to recognize her family member’s faces and voices and she got to a point where she could no longer care for herself.
But, there is one thing that Mary-Lou was able to hold onto and that one thing kept her smiling until the very end of her life. From the time Mary-Lou’s granddaughter, Nicole Coenen was a baby, she sang “You are my sunshine” with her. The now 24-year-old shared how she would spend time with her grandmother once a week and a lot of that time included singing together.
“I can’t remember a time when my grandmother was not in my life,” said Nicole. “She was like a second mother to me.”
As part of a film school project, the Canada resident put together clips that documented her grandmother’s descent from dementia. The majority of the clips included the two of them singing the song, “You are My Sunshine,” which was first recorded in 1939.
The footage encapsulates a variety of different moments including, one of Nicole singing the song while stroking Mary-Lou’s hair. Every now and then you can see Mary-Lou snap back into reality when Nicole sings the famous lyrics…
“You are my sunshine/my only sunshine/You make me happy/when skies are gray.”
“She would forget who I was, but she always remembered the words of that song,” said Nicole, who shared that the song matched the joyful woman’s personality. “And then she might start to remember other things. It would trigger her memory. It was a way of bringing her back because she would always brighten up. I had no idea it would do that.”
Creating the film was an outlet for Nicole and gave her an opportunity to remember the special moments she had with her grandmother. She will now be able to watch those moments unfold on film forever.
Nicole also remembers her grandmother for being a survivor, having survived World War II while living in the Netherlands. Both of Mary Lou’s parents suffered from different forms of dementia. Her father died from Alzheimer’s and her mother ultimately died of cancer.
Because Mary Lou was fearful of inheriting the horrible disease, she went back to school and got certified as a support worker for Alzheimer’s patients, where she looked after the victims of the disease. She then started to recognize the dementia symptoms in herself but wanted to keep it a secret when she was diagnosed.
“So we did everything in our power to try to not let people know what was happening because she was very embarrassed about it, ’cause she never wanted this illness,” said Patty, who is Nicole’s mother.
Nicole continued to see her grandmother for the person she always knew and didn’t let the disease jade her opinion of the woman she adored.
“I just didn’t understand why people didn’t see that she was, she was still here,” she said. “She was still 100 percent my grandma and she hadn’t changed as a human being or anything. Like, she was sick, but that was it. She wasn’t different.”