Tag Archives: Music and Dementia

Staving Off Dementia: A success story

When someone gets a diagnosis of Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), they can slide into despair, believing that dementia is their destiny. But we now know more about factors that promote brain disease — and practices that can protect us from it. This week I spoke to a valiant woman who’s decided to fight back.

Between the Pond and the Woods -- Fighting Dementia

I won’t state her full name, but Kay is the name I’m using for the amazing person I just interviewed. She carries a cane, but doesn’t use it much. The words that come out of her mouth are just twisted enough to make you guess something might be wrong. Her eyes sparkle despite the fact that she’s received two gamma knife treatments — at the maximum radiation level. Kay displays insight and passion that many healthy people lack.

Kay has a diagnosis of MCI and a condition called a degenerative cerebellum.  I’d never heard of this disease before. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders says symptoms may include “a wide-based, unsteady, lurching walk, often accompanied by a back and forth tremor in the trunk of the body” as well as “slowed and slurred speech”.

But I’m not writing to explain her neurological problems. I want you get inspired by her story. Instead of letting the symptoms take over, Kay has developed a lifestyle that she calls “very busy”. I met her during rehearsal for a choir performance. Kay joined the choir because her doctors suggested that musical activity might help address the disease symptoms. She also learned that socialization is an important disease fighting strategy. The choir helps her connect with others.

During choir practices, Kay has learned to read music. She believes that the musical training has helped her project her voice better and pronounce words more clearly. But she wasn’t willing to stop at just those benefits. Kay decided to learn to play music, too. At first, her third and fifth fingers ignored efforts to push them down. But now they both respond.

Kay says her doctors believe that the musical training is helping her to “postpone the inevitable.” Her symptoms have declined and she says that music has helped her “create new pathways” in her brain. In addition to her musical activities, Kay follows a rigorous diet. She eats few carbs, no sugar and no red meat. She’s in her sixties, but I would have guessed that she’s ten years younger.

Her example is a good antidote for people worried about inheriting the Alzheimer’s gene. It’s also instructive for anyone who has experienced brain trauma through injury or stroke. If we have one of these problems, we could fret about what will happen to us in the future. We could sit back and wait. But we also have the option of doing what Kay does: taking a proactive approach to our health.

I’m the first one to be lazy about diet. I crave chocolate and I love the second glass of wine. Cholesterol is a problem I don’t want to face. But I looked at this woman and was so impressed at how hard she works to live well. Kay believes she can “postpone the inevitable ’til the very end.” Would you fight that hard? Could you be that committed? What would it take to make you answer yes?

More on Music for Dementia: The Comfort of the Familiar

It’s still snowing here. But we prepared in advance, so things are not too crazy today. The pantry is full, Mom is snoozing, and the coal stove is keeping us warm. Instead of pepping Mom up with rock and roll, my sister had the inspired idea to play church hymns. It settled everybody down.

Between the Pond and the Woods

Like many people of my generation, my time in the church pews has dropped to near zero. But the small town where I grew up was a lot like Garrison Keillor’s fictional community of Lake Woebegone.  We went to the 11 AM service at the Lutheran Church every week. My dad was a well-regarded singer who performed in local theater productions and sang beautiful solos with the Lutheran choir. During elementary school, I sang in the children’s choir. Later in life I listened to my dad from the pews.

Though I’m seldom aware of it, I have a huge library of hymns in my head and can probably hum a hundred of them without straining to remember. Mom can’t go to church now because of her mobility problems. But Garrison Keillor’s weekly broadcasts remind me that there’s no reason I can’t bring church to her. On some of his performances, he manages to prod a whole theater full of people into singing the old hymns — and this is a comedy show!

Songs like Amazing Grace and Rock of Ages bring a high level of comfort to my mother. As a young mother she kept her voice low because my father made fun of her for singing off key. Dad passed away many years ago and now she doesn’t seem to remember his criticism (or him, for that matter!) Every once in a while she starts to hum in this wild operatic voice that comes from a strange, inexplicable source. The sound is weird, but vibrant and full of joy.

Her singing makes me wonder: what else is still in there? How is her internal library organized? Dewey decimal, random chance? Is there anything that might add to her peace or happiness? The are countless mysteries behind her eyes. It gives us something to ponder on a grey, snowy day.