I watched a video that has been making the rounds on Facebook lately, and I thought it illustrated how we can still reach those in the latter stages of Alzheimer’s, we just have to be flexible in our approach.
Musician Joe Fraley’s mother has Alzheimer’s, and back in October, before she was moved to assisted living, Fraley recorded a video of him and his Mom sitting on the porch while he strummed a guitar and sang.
Clearly, the woman is confused and asks poignant questions like “Who are we?” Fraley’s approach is refreshing because he keeps things light and conversational, while still addressing her concerns and not being dismissive. The woman responds to the music, and you can see how it lights up her face, even if it is just temporarily.
Not only is it important for those with Alzheimer’s to still connect with their family members in small but meaningful ways like this, I believe it is equally important for the family caregivers. While the recorded moment is still tinged with sadness, Fraley was able to reach his mother through the cloud of dementia by their mutual love of music, and that is a memory to cherish.
I was able to go see the documentary, “Alive Inside” this weekend and it definitely met and exceeded my expectations.
As many of you probably know, the inspiring project at the center of the film is best known by a clip posted on YouTube of an elderly African-American man named Henry, who is in the latter stages of Alzheimer’s. He lives in a nursing home and his caregivers say he is barely verbal, usually keeping his head down all day long. Then they put the headphones on, and play the beloved music of his youth. Like a switch, Henry becomes alive, and most surprisingly, quite verbal and coherent. The effect is truly amazing. The video has gone viral, receiving millions of page views.
Dan Cohen, through his Music & Memory program, has a mission: he wants to bring personalized music to every nursing home resident in America. It sounds like a simple, clear-cut mission, but it turns out to be quite a challenge. Bottom line, there’s more profit to be made in the creation and marketing of ineffective medications than there is in Cohen’s proven grassroots program.
The benefits of music to those with dementia and other mental illnesses is astounding. Music has a greater impact on us than just making us tap our toes and fingers. Music touches the deepest parts of our emotional core, that usually remain intact even into the latter stages of Alzheimer’s.
Music has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. My dad would sing to me as a baby, I had a collection of Disney records as a little girl, and then I went on to develop my own eclectic taste in music as a teen and adult. Music can move me to tears or pump me up with energy. I can’t imagine life without music.
I wish I had understood the power of music better while my father was still alive, because I’m sure he would have loved to have heard Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.
Another point the documentary makes is how lonely and dehumanizing institutional life is for the residents. While music is not a substitute for human companionship, it can help fill a void.
“Alive Inside” is getting great reviews and I hope the buzz around the film will translate into donors who will help Cohen reach his worthy goal. If you have an iPod collecting dust, please consider donating it to this program.
I was viewing this poignant photo gallery of people with Alzheimer’s around the world. I was struck by the photos of those finding joy in music, with one woman playing the xylophone even in the final days of her life. Then there was the video that I saw posted on the Hot Dogs and Marmalade blog about the magic of music.
One big regret I have about my dad’s care during the last month of his life, other than not being there in person for those final weeks was that I didn’t bring music back into his life. The palliative care doctor asked what kind of music Dad liked, which caught Mom and I by surprise a bit, as we had spent most of the time answering routine questions as the doctor filled out a long form. She asked us if he liked Irish music, as she had some CD’s at home that she could bring in and play for him. I don’t know if she ever did, because I left for home and Dad was transferred out of the hospital a few days later.
The last photograph of dad and I together, July 2011.
I’ve written many posts about how my dad loved to sing, especially the classics by Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. There is a cassette tape recording of my dad singing to me when I was a baby, and the recording is in remarkably good shape. Before my father passed, I remembered the tape and was eager to get my hands on it. Luckily, it was in a very convenient spot, in a shoebox on the top shelf of the closet in the guest bedroom of my parent’s home. Being the modern gadget gal that I am, I no longer owned a cassette recorder so I ordered one from Amazon which could create an mp3 file on my computer.
I couldn’t wait to get home and start the process. I had to fiddle with the program a bit and only got a fuzzy but listenable file the first time around. Then Dad took another turn for the worse and I had to rush back to New Mexico and abandon the project for awhile. But I did have the first recording on my tablet and I thought about playing it for him, especially when he had the private room on the CCU floor at Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque. Of course, most of the time there he was sedated, but some experts believe there is some level of consciousness that remains in that state. I felt awkward playing it with so many staff members coming in and out, and of course my mom, who bless her soul, probably would have talked over the entire thing. By the time he was becoming a bit more aware, he was moved to a semi-private room where the TV was blaring.
There’s no guarantee that music would have made a difference, but it’s an opportunity forever lost. One last chance to connect, to bring back a happy memory, to maybe even make a smile appear on his haggard face. A moment that was never to be, because I was worried about things that didn’t matter.