According to statistics, one in three senior Americans now suffers from some type of dementia. My mother was one of the unfortunate millions who had an advanced type of Alzheimer’s disease. As it progressed, she lost the ability to communicate on anything more than a passive level, responding to very little, short of a head nod or facial response here and there. When she spoke, it was in whispers and then only gibberish.
One thing that did seem to register, however, was music. Each Saturday night we would move her wheelchair to the band room at my parents’ farm where our family band, “The Brothers & Co.,” would rehearse. We would feed her dinner – a manual task since she couldn’t do it on her own - and she’d spend most of the rest of the evening listening to us play and sing, surrounded by family in a room she created for us.
Usually, she had a kind of empty, blank expression on her face, a typical Alzheimer’s manifestation. But one evening during our practice, she was sitting near my piano and I caught sight of a slight smile in her eyes and looked down to see her toe tapping on the footrest of her chair.
Since Mom needed 24-hour care, and because we had no intention of leaving her to rot in a nursing home, we cared for her at home and she came along with us to every performance. She had a specially-outfitted seat on our tour bus, complete with an oxygen tank and all of our portable medical supplies. My cousin sat with her in the audience and she would sing, “You are my sunshine,” with us at some point in every show. Music got through, when nothing else would, and I’m relieved to know that I’m not the only one who noticed.
A friend recently told me about a National Public Radio news story related to this phenomenon. The piece focused on a documentary featuring social worker Dan Cohen and his creation of custom music playlists on iPods for elderly dementia patients. Titled, “Alive Inside,” the film explores Cohen’s exploration of the connection between music and long term memory.
“Even though Alzheimer’s and various forms of dementia will ravage many parts of the brain, long-term memory of music from when one was young remains very often,” Cohen told NPR’s Melissa Block. “So if you tap that, you really get that kind of awakening response. It’s pretty exciting to see.”
That all makes a lot of sense when you think about the kinds of music my family band plays and the relationship my mother had to it. There’s no question we were reaching an area of her mind that the Alzheimer’s hadn’t yet shorted out.
After I noticed my mother’s reactions, I paid more attention whenever we performed at nursing facilities where a great number of the residents were suffering from similar illnesses. I can’t tell you what a heart-wrenching experience it always is to see these poor people in such a state; doubled over in wheelchairs, closed off, withdrawn into the isolated torment of their own disease-ravaged minds. And then …
And then we start playing and something would happen, a toe would begin to tap here and there, or a silent face would begin to mouth words to a song. Although it might seem like there’s nothing left of the people they once were, here was a sign that they were still in there – somewhere – and we were reaching into that one place the disease couldn’t penetrate.
Cohen’s idea of customized iPod playlists for each patient is still plagued by one major hurtle – money. Nursing care, particularly long-term dementia care, is incredibly expensive and iPods aren’t cheap. It’s the same financial roadblock encountered by virtually every other progressive therapy for dementia ever proposed.
With that, I am challenging one member of the family of every dementia patient to buy an iPod for their loved one and load it with music from their life. Give them a moment to feel who they once were in the most personal, powerful way possible – through music.
Links to the NPR story online at deerinheadlines.com. Gery L. Deer is an independent columnist based in Jamestown, Ohio.