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“When I Sing, My Grandmother’s Eyes Light Up”: Grammy Winner Kalani Pe’a Shares His Alzheimer’s Story

“When I Sing, My Grandmother’s Eyes Light Up”: Grammy Winner Kalani Pe’a Shares His Alzheimer’s Story
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May 11, 2023
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Kalani is a Grammy Award-winning singer and composer who comes from a long line of musicians, his kūpuna: ancestors and elders. His grandmother has been living with Alzheimer’s for the past 13 years. 

My maternal grandmother, Lu Kahunani — meticulous, steadfast, strong-willed, industrious, eloquent and regal — has been battling Alzheimer’s for more than a decade. She is not ready to join my grandfather on the other side. She is still holding on.

More than 15 generations of my family came from the Hawaiian islands. My grandmother shaped my Hawaiian identity and is amongst my life idols — one of my very best friends. She supported my early years in singing, whether at home or in a choir.

Music can be so healing. When I sing to my grandmother, she looks right at me, her eyes glistening through her clouded mind. I feel like she is crying spiritually when I sing. And past any sadness, there is such happiness. I sing to her: “He Pua Nonohe ʻOe… You are a beautiful flower!”

She moves her lips when I sing. Even if it is for a split second, the music lets me connect with her on a different level. Although she doesn’t speak anymore, when I sing to her, her eyes light up — she knows I’m there. 

Growing up a proud Hawaiian

I grew up in a working class family where music was always being played in our native Hawaiian language, everyone living in one household. My memories as a child are of riding a bike on my homeland, picking guavas along the way. Amongst the hundreds of other fond childhood memories, my grandmother's cooking is right at the top. 

My paternal grandfather, John Pe‘a, passed away from Alzheimer’s. He was an opera singer. Although I come from a long line of musicians on both sides of my family, I was the first to record an album. In it, I sing about my love for everything Hawaii has made me today. Songwriting has allowed me to share my personal experiences and honor my ancestors.

Facing the reality of Alzheimer’s

More than a decade ago, my grandmother began to lose her words. She started to misplace things, then didn’t know where she was. I knew time was precious. I cried not just because I was a crybaby (I am!); I cried because I knew I was going to lose her one day.

In 2009, my grandmother was asked to retire from her job. At that point, she had already begun to wander. She often caught herself in those moments and was aware of what was happening to her. 

Then sundowning began — the confusion, the agitation. 

In 2010, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. My mother was now taking care of her own mother as if she was her child. Full-time caregiving takes a physical and emotional toll, and my mother learned this firsthand as my grandmother’s sole caregiver. 

Today, my grandmother lives in a memory care center in Hilo, where we visit her often. When I visit her, I always sing. Although she can’t tell us what she’s thinking, her eyes tell a story. As she connects with the music, her eyes tell me that she loves me and is proud of me.

Family over stigma

Some people in my culture are ashamed to say they have family members going through this disease. I encourage them to move past the stigma by asking for help, whether it is resources from the Alzheimer’s Association or help by the way of their community. By talking openly and creating a dialogue with fans at my shows, I show people that it’s okay to talk and share our stories. It helps educate current and future caregivers and it lets them know that they are not alone. 

You are never alone if you have music. Music is essential; it allows people to reflect on the past and to connect on a deeper level. Music allows me to connect with my grandmother even though she is deep into her disease. Alzheimer’s does not define her, because love always wins — with some help from music along the way.

About: Nā Hōkū Hanohano & Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter Kalani Pe'a has participated in the Alzheimer’s Association’s The Longest Day in support of his grandmother. This included a Lei Day Facebook Live performance to raise money toward his goal. 

Kalani donates a portion of his concert proceeds to the Alzheimer’s Association to honor his grandmother. He is married to husband and manager Allan B. Cool. They live together in Maui, where Kalani’s mother also calls home. Kalani’s favorite color has always been purple, the color of the Alzheimer’s Association cause.

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