It all comes back to me now

A wave of soft singing makes its way across the room and reaches me at the piano. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is once again working its magic—comforting, lifting spirits, awakening emotions.

I’ve written in an earlier post about this special song, one I make an exception for in my secular piano programs. When I volunteer in memory-care centers, it’s a standard part of my repertoire.

I play “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” because it never fails to elicit a response. Part of its appeal is the beautiful melody and full, satisfying chord progressions. And the song’s lower range makes it well-suited to older singers, whose voices have deepened naturally with age. But there’s something else about the song that I’ve never been able to put my finger on. I’ve observed many patients from dementia units who slump mutely in wheelchairs seeming unaware of their surroundings, then raise their heads and begin singing when they hear the first few notes of “Battle Hymn.” The lyrics flow easily from their long-term memory, unlocked by the music. This occasionally happens when I play other songs, but it always happens when I play “Battle Hymn” in a memory-care setting.

Music therapists know the power of music to connect with patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. I’m a music volunteer, not a music therapist, but I tap into that power, too. And the results can be astounding. There is no doubt that carefully chosen music can relieve dementia-related anxiety, spark memories, stir feelings, and bring a patient back into the world, even if only for a little while. No one claims that music can cure or reverse the ravages of dementia. But it can help.

Take Sophie for example, one of my listeners with memory loss. In the 1940s, she sang and played clarinet in an “all-girl” big band. She often sits at her lunch table, staring at her food, looking vacant. Then I start playing a big-band tune like “Goody Goody” or “Jersey Bounce,” and she’s tapping out the rhythm with one hand, spooning up her macaroni and cheese with the other.

People with dementia who can no longer speak can usually sing old, familiar songs. And those who can no longer recognize family or friends can recognize and respond to music, if it’s the right kind. Dan Cohen, a New York social worker, decided to explore this idea by starting a volunteer project he called “Music and Memory” to bring iPods to residents of memory-care facilities. Cohen collected used iPods through donation, then loaded them with personalized music selections after consulting with family and other caregivers. A soon-to-be-released documentary called Alive Inside follows him as he distributes the iPods to patients with severe dementia. The headset goes on, the music starts, and magic happens. Music rouses these patients. As filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett puts it, music is “a backdoor into the mind, into the part of the brain that dementia and Alzheimer’s shut off.”

A rough-cut clip from Alive Inside, focusing on a patient named Henry, went viral when it appeared online last year. You can see it here. Keep tissues handy.

Copyright © 2013 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.

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This entry was posted in Dementia, Music and emotion, Volunteering and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to It all comes back to me now

  1. Sandy Shores says:

    That video is amazing the way it brings Henry to life! Bless his heart! What a wonderful thing to use for those suffering with dementia. Thanks for this blog, Paulette. This is very exciting.

    • Henry is such a powerful example of what music can do. There was some concern initially that the iPod project would make the dementia patients turn further inward, but the results have been just the opposite: the music makes them more sociable, more engaged. The whole project is truly inspiring to me. The documentary was scheduled for a September 2013 release, but seems to have been delayed. I hope it gets wide enough distribution that I can see it.

  2. Roger Wise says:

    I knew that I had seen that Henry video before so I checked my folder of saved video files. Sure enough, I had downloaded it onto my computer back on April 12, 2012. For those who might wonder why we choose to play for enjoyment rather than money, what better way to show them why we do what we do?

  3. Evie Kimball says:

    As you know, Paulette, this blog has special meaning to me as I deal with Bud’s Alzheimers. He’s always been tone deaf, but that hasn’t affected his enjoyment of music!

  4. Judie says:

    This was an amazing video. What a transformation! Music is so very powerful.

    • After the film is finished, the director hopes to put together an Alive Inside companion book — stories of personal experiences using music with dementia patients. He has expressed interest in including something from my blog. If that project gets off the ground, I will definitely announce it here!

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