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    an old person playing the piano

    Music, Memory, and Alzheimer’s

    What can music do for people who suffer from dementia?

    By Berta Boller

    March 24, 2022

    “Blue skies smiling at me, Nothing but blue skies do I see;
    Bluebird up in the tree, singing his sweet song, just for me.
    For me, not you! Though April showers come your way…”

    —Irving Berlin

    My companion was singing her favorite childhood show-tunes, but I couldn’t keep up as they muddled into each other.

    I’m a music teacher by trade, but with only morning classes, I had signed on as an afternoon home health aide for Collette, who had dementia. Collette had spent her childhood and youth in New Jersey during the Great Depression. With her husband Dick, she had raised eight children. She and I were fellow members of the Bruderhof and had known each other well for some years.

    Although dementia brought its frustrations and challenges for family and caregivers, it blessedly seemed to leave Collette’s spirit alone. Most days, even if she couldn’t find the right words, she was cheerful and upbeat; my main task was to discover rewarding practical outlets to fill a long day. Remembering her love of music and the piano in particular, I wondered what would happen if we went to the grand piano in the church, and put some folk arrangements in front of her. To both of our delight, it was still all there, in her fingers! From then on, our afternoons were joy-filled musical excursions; she could still read the music, and each song triggered other gems from her past.

    I asked her family if she could join me in my morning music classes. Collette played prelude music as the children filed in, then sat with them, clapping and singing along. Oldies were a favorite for everyone: “A Bicycle Built for Two,” “April Showers,” “Sunny Side of the Street.”

    Seeing the language of music leap to Collette’s fingers so readily when words had deserted her made me wonder if this was a phenomenon experienced by others who were navigating memory loss or dementia.

    Sometime later I heard from my brother Matthew, who lives at a Bruderhof in Pennsylvania. He’d had the chance to care for Elias, a man with advanced Alzheimer’s disease, until his final days. Matthew told me that those months had affected him in ways he was still contemplating. Though Elias was often restless and agitated, his soul would find a way to speak for itself, most often through music. Elias’s love of singing was the last thing left to him after he could barely string together more than a few coherent spoken words.

    Christmas songs were favorites, but so were hymns, old ballads, and songs about nature or the seasons. He had no use anymore for talking; long conversations or sermons would inspire a speedy exit attempt. But if anyone started a song, it brought him to equilibrium again, and he could hold out till the end of whatever social gathering or church service he and his wife were attending. In fact, he would spontaneously start up songs himself.

    While his wife, Lydia, still enjoyed listening to the Metropolitan Opera, Elias could no longer focus on the complexities of classical music. Matthew often took them out for an afternoon drive in the mountains, then stopped for ice cream. Instead of the radio, Elias preferred to sing along with Matthew in the car. He knew a vast repertoire of songs by heart, and never missed a word.

    an old person playing the piano

    Photograph by Elcarito

    No matter how hard the day had been, even if verbal communication was at a standstill, Elias would light up as he joined a family sing-along with friends. At age eighty-five, he could carry the tunes perfectly on pitch, harmonizing with a ringing tenor voice in either German or English. Participating in shared song clearly gave him not only momentary joy, but some measure of calm and peace that would carry him on for some time after. After his death, his family and carers remembered and treasured those flashes of shared communication. Elias had found a way of saying, “This is me. I am still here.”

    Neurologist Oliver Sacks writes:

    A common thing in Alzheimer’s is to lose one’s memory for events and to lose one’s biography, one’s personal memories. It seems they cannot be accessed directly. But personal memories are “embedded,” to some extent, in things like music. This is especially true about songs one knew, or which one learned, and especially songs which one sang.

    So the past which is not recoverable in any other way seems to be sort of “embedded in amber,” if you will, in music. People can regain a sense of identity, at least for a while.

    Perhaps it was my own parents who taught me the most about the language of music at the end of life.

    My mother was blessed with a pure, clear soprano voice, unhampered by professionalism and ego. Music was central to our childhood; our mother directed the community choir and sang the soprano solos while raising a family of eleven children, including Louisa, the heart of our family, who had Down syndrome. Our father supported the choral efforts with his rich baritone (he had sung in a Barbershop Quartet in college called “The Four Flats,” and it was through the college concert choir that my parents met).

    My mother went first, after a relatively short period of decline due to heart complications; her mind was clear to the end. A week before her death she was listening, from her bed, to the community choir rehearsing choruses from Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion and remarked astutely, “Those tenors!” As her body grew weaker I noticed that she responded most, not to the revered choral classics, but to the simplest children’s hymns, the ones she had sung over and over with Louisa.

    My father’s final journey was long: five years of increasing dementia. It was through music that my father connected to reality as Alzheimer’s took its toll on his brain. Mozart’s clarinet concerto served well to pacify household storms (he had played clarinet in his high-school band); Bach’s choral works always brought peace.

    In the last week of November, there was a sudden and rapid decline in Dad’s condition. Thinking he wouldn’t be with us for Christmas, my sister Rebekah decorated the house early and put up a tree with the favorite family ornaments. Dad lay in in a reclining chair gazing at the beauty of Christmas that surrounded him. Rebekah made sure his favorite Christmas pieces were playing softly in the background. He was unable to articulate his thoughts coherently anymore, but his eyes lit up when his favorite carols played. His feet began to tap in rhythm to the music, and – until several weeks before he died – he would sing along. Or whistle. He didn’t seem to need more than the solace of familiar spiritual music to give him peace and security.

    In his final weeks, Dad often looked up and away with glowing eyes, seemingly already in another world visible only to him. On several occasions, he said, “Be quiet: she’s getting ready to sing for us now.” Tilting his head quizzically, his eyes shone as he asked, “Is she still in Manchester College? She’s so young; so very beautiful!”

    Clearly, Mom was close by, singing him home.

    Contributed By

    Berta Boller is a member of the Bruderhof and lives at the Bellvale Community in New York.

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