I’ve read several articles recently about the connection between music and Alzheimer’s patients, and all of them agree that music has power. An article on the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America website states that “[music] can spark compelling outcomes even in the very late stages of the disease.” It goes on to explain how music allows patients who are normally shut off from the world to connect with loved ones and to participate in enjoyable activities. Music is also a valuable tool in managing agitation and other behavioral issues.
Music was always important to Mom. As a child one of her greatest joys was playing guitar and singing in church and at family gatherings. In later years, social anxieties and physical infirmities made her give up some of her music, but she still enjoyed congregational singing and occasional family songfests.
While she was living with me, we attended church regularly. The senior adult ministry had a monthly luncheon that included some sort of entertainment. Mom’s favorite was the occasional hymn sing where the audience sang along. One afternoon someone requested “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” one of the first songs we sang together. As we sang, our eyes met, and for a moment, her eyes cleared and she was there, as she had been before Alzheimer’s. It didn’t last long. As the clarity faded from her eyes, she continued to sing, but I couldn’t make a sound past the lump in my throat.
Mom’s needs eventually exceeded my caregiving abilities, and she and Dad moved into assisted living. By the time he died 5 months later, she was pretty inactive. She smiled at everyone and offered hugs, she walked to the dining room with assistance, and she ate with gusto, but that was the extent of her participation. When I visited, we spent a lot of time sitting together, holding hands. One afternoon we were in the common area, and the TV was on a gospel music show. I began to sing along, and Mom joined in. Her words were garbled and incoherent except when she came to the word “Jesus.” There was no connection between us like we had at the hymn sing, but every time Jesus’ name came up in a song, she smiled and sang out clearly and with conviction.
Agitation management and behavioral issues
Mom was generally a docile, cooperative patient, but in the last few months before she died, she developed bullous pemphigoid, a chronic skin disease involving blisters. Her blisters got infected, and she was hospitalized for several weeks. She became agitated, scratching at her bandages and pulling out multiple IVs. The nurses put her in protective mittens to stop further damage. Even so her hands were restless and she frequently asked if we were ready to go. But she relaxed when my brother played his guitar. She clapped in rhythm when he played a lively tune, and she lay quietly with her eyes closed, humming harmony, during the more mellow songs.
She never recovered completely from her illness. She was placed on hospice care and moved back to the assisted living facility. When she died a few months later we received a sympathy card signed by the staff members who cared for her. One of the entries talked about her musical participation:
“Sending love to you and your family. I’ll never forget dancing with her on [wing] 300 and listening to her hum to the songs at church. Her place is next to Jesus and we will remember her smile every day.”
Music, Art and Alzheimer’s
Caregivers Take Note – Music as Therapy
The Healing Power of Music