Dementia Robbed Grandmother of Names and Faces, but Not the Words to ‘You Are My Sunshine’

Dementia stole many things from Mary-Lou Versteegh — the names of her daughter and granddaughter, her ability to care for herself and the capacity to recognize her family’s faces.

But there was one thing even Alzheimer’s couldn’t erase, and that was the words to “You Are My Sunshine,” a song she sang to her granddaughter as a baby and a tune that had always been her favorite.

Nicole Coenen, 24, made a video as a film school project in her native Canada that documented her grandmother’s descent into dementia. Much of it contains footage of the pair singing the American standard that was first recorded in 1939. 

Sometimes Nicole sings alone, stroking Mary-Lou’s hair as her grandmother lies with her eyes closed. Sometimes Mary-Lou seems to snap back to reality when her granddaughter begins singing, “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,” Nicole said. “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.”

Mary-Lou sang it to Nicole when she was a child. The song matched her grandmother’s personality, Nicole said. “She was a joyous person.”

She was also was a survivor. She endured World II while living in the Netherlands. She watched her parents battle to retain their minds and memories. Her father died from Alzheimer’s and her mother suffered vascular dementia, but died of cancer.

Mary-Lou was terrified she would inherit the vile disease and ended up going back to college and studied to become a support worker for patients with Alzheimer’s. She then looked after dementia sufferers. 

And then she began losing parts of herself. She was tired all the time. She forgot things. Ultimately, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and told her daughter, Patty, to keep it a family secret.

“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 said her grandmother’s illness wasn’t a big deal in her eyes.

“I just didn’t understand why people didn’t see that she was, she was still her,” 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.”

Mary-Lou lost her battle late last year. Nicole’s video, which, at its core, is really a love song to her grandmother, received an A from her film school instructor.


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