According to a recent study at the University of California, listening to music can be of benefit to Alzheimer’s patients. I became aware of this several years ago when I directed a series of documentary films for the National Film Board of Canada entitled Caregivers. In my research I talked to a number of people caring for a family member with Alzheimer’s. What was remarkable were the number of stories of people who had all but forgotten who they were but who could still sit down at a piano and play or sing songs from long ago.
The poet William Cowper in his poem Music and Recollection captures the power of music to unlock memories:
With easy force it opens all the cells
Where Memory slept. Wherever I have heard
A kindred melody, the scene recurs,
And with it all its pleasures and its pains.
Such comprehensive views the spirit takes,
That in a few short moments I retrace
(As in a map the voyager his course)
The windings of my way through many years.
The other day, I was again reminded of this phenomenon. I was responding to a colleague’s request on the Association of Personal Historian’s Listserv. She was asking for help on how to gather information for a life story from an individual whose memory was fading. I mentioned the possibility of using music to aid in memory recall. This sparked recollections from other Listserv members who reminisced about touching moments when music helped an aging parent . They have generously allowed me to share these stories with you here.
My mom, Marie, died from Alzheimer’s. She had always loved music and played the piano by ear. Shortly before she died, long after she really knew who we were, long after she could walk or take care of her basic needs or read or even carry on much of a conversation, my sister wheeled her over to the grand piano in the facility where she lived. And she played a tune. I had forgotten all about this until I read Dan’s post. As they say, “thanks for the memories.”
Susan Owens – talesfortelling.com
I worked briefly on a project a few summers ago with a neighbor whose mother no longer remembered anyone in the family or her group of long-time friends (I was actually helping him wrap up her story because he had given up on getting more information).
While he was visiting her one day in a facility where she was staying after a fall, he watched as his mother drifted toward a member of another family. They had walked into the community room carrying a violin case for one of the other residents. Without hesitation, his mother rolled her wheelchair up to the stranger and asked if she could “see” the violin. And, to his amazement, moments later, she was playing it!
My neighbor, her son, knew that she had played in her younger years, before marrying , and that she had always said she was quite good. In talking with her after the impromptu concert, she suddenly asked if he would like to take lessons from her. He had no desire to learn but accepted her offer so that they would have a mutual activity.
Weeks later, she bragged about him as “her star pupil” and, during their breaks, she ended up telling him stories from a part of her life that he’d never known. The “lessons” lasted nearly a year before her mind and her physical control began fading rapidly. Interestingly, during those months, she became very introspective about her parents and the impact they had on her life and very philosophical about her aspirations and dreams – but, the observations and assumptions she made were based on the period of her life as a concert violinist!!
Stephen Evans – www.the-freelance-editor.com
As we were moving my parents out of their home into an assisted living facility (because my dad needed that kind of care), one of the last things to leave the house was the old family piano. It had been in Dad’s childhood home and he had played most evenings after supper for more than eighty years. The evening before the piano movers arrived, my partner Kathy and I went over to have dinner with my parents. Kathy, who is a very talented musician, went to the piano and began to play. Knowing that Dad loved Jerome Kern’s melodies, she started out with some tunes from “Showboat.” Dad had been sitting in his armchair, staring blankly at the wall. When the music began he suddenly focused on Kathy and started to sing along, perfectly on pitch, with every word of the lyrics intact. They played and sang together for almost two hours while Mom and I smiled at each other and wept silently in the other room. It was the first time that Dad had perked up like that in months, and it was a wonderful gift to us all. Dad wasn’t able to play a single note by himself anymore, but with Kathy’s help the music came back to him.
Linda Coffin – www.historycrafters.com
Photo by Desirae
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