With a song in her heart

Once a former Broadway performer, Jaquelin Leizs, right, sings happily with hospice volunteers. The 89 year-old Palos Verdes Estates resident, who has end-stage dementia and blindness, perks up when visited by the volunteers who play piano and sing songs with her. Pictured with Leizs, from left, is son Greg Leizs, daughter Ginger Brown and hospice volunteer Kip Riggins. (photo by Robert Casillas)

Former Broadway singer, now under hospice care, finds solace in music

As Jacquelin Leisz sinks into the depths of end-stage dementia, there are few things she can still do.

She spends her days rotating between her bed and a chair in the family room. She struggles to eat and find words to carry on a conversation. She completely lost her eyesight nearly a decade ago. She requires a 24-hour caretaker along with the help of her daughter, who lives a couple of blocks away.

But when a piano plays a familiar tune, Leisz transforms back into a Broadway singer, belting out the lyrics to Christmas oldies or 1940s show tunes as if she’s under the spotlight in a packed theater.

When Leisz, 89, entered Torrance Memorial Medical Center’s hospice program in late August, the hospital arranged for two hospice volunteers to visit Leisz in her Palos Verdes Estates home twice a week, playing piano and singing along with her.

Leisz blossoms when she’s singing, each lyric blanketing any signs of dementia.

She might not know every line, but she can easily re-create melodies, said her son, Greg Leisz, a professional musician.

At a time when Leisz has lost the ability to really live her life, her children believe she has found solace in song.

“Music is just a different language, and somehow it’s activating a part of her brain,” said her daughter, Ginger Brown. “Thank goodness for that because it gives her pleasure.”

Leisz sat on her couch Monday morning, dressed in a red blazer, hair perfectly coiffed, legs crossed and hands folded in her lap, singing a series of Christmas hits like “Let It Snow,” “Joy to the World” and “White Christmas,” as Greg sat beside her, strumming his guitar.

He carefully placed the guitar in his mom’s lap.

“This is the guitar Dad bought you over 50 years ago,” Greg said, guiding her thumbs over the keys.

Her nails painted a bright red, she began plucking the strings.

“It doesn’t really sound very good,” she said, eliciting laughs, as she passed the guitar back to her son.

Soon, she was easily scaling the high notes of songs like “Silent Night” and “Over the Rainbow” as hospice volunteer Iona Matson tapped out the melodies on the piano. Fellow volunteer Kip Riggins sang backup for Leisz, allowing her to take center stage.

“You sang it very beautifully, Mom,” Greg told her.

“Oh, thank you,” Leisz said.

Leisz grew up in Oakland surrounded by music — her mother played piano, her father the violin — and performed in high school plays and musicals. A couple of years after graduating, she auditioned for a play in San Francisco that was headed for Broadway. In 1945, she was off to New York City for a short stint on Broadway. She performed in a long-running Broadway revival of a light opera called “The Red Mill.”

She left Broadway to get married and eventually had three children, raised mostly in Fullerton, Greg said. She later became a speech pathologist, and she and her late husband spent 20 years living in La Jolla. Her husband died 16 years ago.

After Leisz suffered a stroke nearly a decade ago, Brown moved her mother closer to her in Palos Verdes Estates, uprooting her from her friends and social activities. By the time she moved, she was blind; she has never seen her breathtaking home high up in the Palos Verdes Peninsula hills, overlooking the ocean. Her day-to-day activities are now extremely limited.

“It’s like her world keeps shrinking,” Brown said. “Everything is orchestrated by us. She used to have an active social life.”

Despite Leisz’s seemingly strong health when she’s crooning show tunes, Brown said, “Everything else is starting to shut down.

“Right now, she’s at a plateau. We’re just riding it out,” she said.

Brown said the hospice program has been a godsend for Leisz and her children.

“You don’t realize you’re carrying the burden of a lot of decision-making,” Brown said. “The [hospice team] knows what you’re up against. They sit and listen to you and give you a road map. You feel this weight lifted that you didn’t even know you had on your shoulders.”

Torrance Memorial’s hospice medical director, Dr. Peter Tseng, said they are there to support the patient and the entire family.

“We can’t really affect her dementia. It’s untreatable,” he said. “But she can enjoy someone playing music and singing along with it, which is more than she speaks. It’s heartwarming that we can do that.”

Matson said she gets more out of her visits than Leisz does.

“It’s just a joy,” she said. “She’s always just been lovely.”

Riggins said Leisz is a “pure soul.”

“She just puts her heart into singing,” she said. “It’s inspiring.”

On Monday, nearing the end of her repertoire for the day, Leisz cracked a sly smile and chuckled when she heard applause.

She sings her best when she can sense an audience, Brown said.

“She loves being the star.”

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