By Josephine Reviello*
I recently attended an all-day Alzheimer's Association Spring Conference and Music Therapy was one of the topics. I was amazed at the video presentation of an elderly man stricken with Alzheimer's disease, in the later stages, who came alive when he heard a familiar tune that he used to love in his young day! It was so heartwarming to see him go from a zombie-like state to all smiles and bouncing with energy to the beat of the music! And he actually sang every word in perfect tune! The musical notes of that piece of music were able to break through all of that darkness and confusion and find a way into that one part of his brain that was still alive and intact! Those notes triggered something…something beautiful! This wasn’t something I could to keep in - I had to try it.
I have a client who is residing in a nursing home with advanced stages of a form of dementia. We'll call her “Jane”. Prior to my next routine visit with Jane, I asked her husband if it was ok if I brought in some music for her to listen to. I asked what kind of music she liked - he told me classic country - the oldies but goodies. Although the activity department of the nursing home does a good job of providing music for the residents to listen to, using a pair of headphones drowns out the surrounding noises and it becomes more personal.
Now, usually, when I visit Jane she pleasantly smiles at me and talks to me with words that don’t always make sense and in sentences that don't flow together in a sensible way. But I’m just glad when she appears to be happy – maybe she thinks I’m someone else – someone she likes or loves or used to enjoy being around. So, I gladly play the part – I smile and laugh with her, I nod my head in agreement, I widen my eyes in surprise….and we have a good time. I know Jane is in there somewhere and if there was any way to reach her and connect with her I wanted to find it.
I downloaded an app on my cell phone that played some classic country music and purchased a pair of headphones for a few dollars. I met with Jane at the nursing home – she was sitting in her wheelchair, in the dining room with the other dementia residents waiting for the dinner trays to arrive. There were 3-4 residents seated at each table and each table had something that they could fiddle with such as stuffed animals, baby dolls, crayons and paper, wash cloths to fold, etc. The room was full of residents with dementia, chaotic as usual, with those residents who are ambulatory wandering around table to table, moving furniture, taking someone’s bib, causing another resident to get upset, mumbling, humming, babbling, alarms sounding when someone tried getting out of their seat, etc. And only one staff person in the room to manage all of these people. Unfortunately, this just seems to be the norm when waiting for dinner trays, not only in this facility but in many others.
Jane greeted me with a smile as usual. I validated her conversations with me and then put the headphones on and played some classic country music. I had to keep my eye on the app on my cell phone to make sure it was playing because I couldn’t hear from the headphones. She stopped fiddling with the stuffed teddy bear on the table and put her hands on top of the headphones resting on her ears. She was still for a few seconds, listening. Then she fiddled with the teddy bear on the table again. Then she started to hum a little. Later she clapped a little. She seemed to be in and out of focus on the song – perhaps I didn’t find a song that was her favorite. But after a while she started singing “You Are My Sunshine”. Now, I think this song is far from being considered as a classic country song. But, I’m convinced that the music she heard had triggered something in her brain to make her want to sing that song. She sang almost the entire song with all the words right in tune and smiling the entire time. She would look at me and smile and sing this song. I tried to sing along with her but unfortunately, I don’t know all of the words to this song. But she was content just singing it to me.
I reported this experience to Jane’s daughter, who told me that her mother used to sing the song “You Are My Sunshine” to her when she was a little girl! I was so pleasantly surprised I wanted to cry! I was so happy to have made such a connection with Jane – a memory that brought her back to happy moments with her children and she was able to share that with me. The notes of the music she heard triggered something……..something beautiful!