A colleague’s wife suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease for 12 years before she died. During the later stages of her disease, when she could no longer recognize her husband or her children, and when most of her other intellectual faculties had greatly diminished, her love of music persisted. An hour a week, a friend from church came with a CD player, and together they sang her favorite hymns from her youth. She remembered the words and the tunes, despite all of her other losses. Because we knew this story, we took particular interest in an article by Sara Davidson in the New York Times. As Davidson reported, researchers and clinicians are finding that when all other means of communication have shut down, people remember and respond to music. Familiar songs can help people with dementia relate to others, move more easily, be more relaxed, and experience positive emotions. Kate Gfeller, who directs the graduate music therapy program at the University of Iowa, published a study in the Journal of Music Therapy indicating that activities like moving to music, playing rhythm instruments, and singing led to more group involvement and less wandering and disruptive behavior among 51 patients with dementia in five nursing facilities. Other studies demonstrate that music therapy can slow the progress of Alzheimer’s, relieve pain and create emotional intimacy. Music is also helpful with other bodily limitations. In a study published by the American Society of Neuro-rehabilitation, music therapy and conventional physical therapy were given to two groups of stroke victims who could barely walk. The group who received music therapy showed greater improvement in walking in a shorter period of time than those getting physical therapy. People especially respond to music that had special meaning for them earlier in their lives. Sara Davidson, from whom we are drawing this material, recalled visiting her grandfather when he was hospitalized with dementia, lying in bed, unable to talk. “I started singing a Hungarian song he’d learned as a youth and later taught to me, ‘Territch-ka.’ I sang the verse and when I stopped, he opened his mouth and sang the chorus: ‘Yoy, Territch-ka!’ Right on key.” She also commented that her daughter, a music therapist, was looking ahead with optimism. ‘Boomers will be the next generation in the nursing facilities. … Your generation will be awesome — we’ll get to play the Beatles.’
From: The Songs They Can’t Forget by Sara Davidson New York Times, April 23, 2010, blog.