• Beth Rousseau, MA, MT-BC

You put the Pickles in the Pickle Barrel: Music Therapy and Dementia

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"Agnes*, where are YOU going to let your light shine?" Agnes looked down at me crouching beside her with my guitar, and smiled. Her smile always made me smile. With her slightly crooked teeth and her bright eyes, her joy was infectious.

The group was singing "This Little Light of Mine," and it was her opportunity to contribute a verse. "Whaddya think, Agnes? Where should we shine our light?" Agnes thought for a moment, and offered in her high, creaky voice:

"You put the pickles in the pickle barrel."

She smiled again.

Still crouched beside her chair, I turned and announced to the group, "Agnes says you put the pickles in the pickle barrel. Let's sing that!" So I played and the whole group sang:

Put the pickles in the pickle barrel, I'm gonna let it shine!

Put the pickles in the pickle barrel, I'm gonna let it shine!

Put the pickles in the pickle barrel, I'm gonna let it shine!

Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!


I love working with elders. These people have seen it all: the good, the bad, the ugly, and the breathtakingly beautiful. They know the score -- you can't get much by them. They love to tease me, calling me "dimples" when I smile or ribbing me when I forget the words to a song. They are often happy to see me, even when they can't remember who I am or why I'm there. What they remember is, "Hey! I like her! She's the good one." That's a great feeling for both of us.

Even in cases of dementia, where a person's ability to understand the world as we do is slipping away, their ability to feel is as real as ever. Thoughts may be confused, logic may be faulty, but the feelings are real and present right now, in the moment. A smile, a furrowed brow, or a laugh doesn't need logic or language. They exist spontaneously in us, without us having to understand them. It is a privilege to spend time with people who have such unfettered access to their own feelings. Relationships can become intimate quite quickly, because these folks are the definition of "emotionally available". In the case of Agnes' pickle barrel comment, I didn't think much about it at the time. I think I was amused and then just kept going. As a music therapist I am looking to affirm a client's contribution to the activity by reflecting it back to them. I'm less concerned with logic and more concerned with "how do I make this into a lyric?" I purposely use songs like "This little light" because you can stick just about any phrase in there and the song still works. It's great for group songwriting. In a song, pickles make as much sense as loftier pursuits.

Upon further reflection later, I considered Agnes' invective. Why would she be telling me to put pickles in the pickle barrel? To me what it meant was: You put things where they go. The pickles belong in the barrel, and you shine your light where it's supposed to be shining. It's not hard. And I've taken enough literature classes in my life to recognize a metaphor when I'm handed one. So when I'm asking her "Where are you going to shine your light?", she's answering: "Where I'm supposed to, of course!" Over the years, I've sung this song with hundreds of elders. Among the responses I've gotten are:

  • "at the beach"

  • "with my family"

  • "in the dark places"

  • "wherever I can"

  • "everywhere!"

There are no wrong answers. Sometimes there are really, really deep and philosophical answers. Sometimes there are silly answers. Sometimes those are the same answers.

Each one of us has to decide for ourselves where we are going to let our lights shine. I am so lucky that I get to shine mine through music, and share it with people like Agnes. I don't know what your light is, or where you should shine it, but I do know this: You put the pickles in the pickle barrel.


You can find great information about music therapy and dementia from the American Music Therapy Association here:


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