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.