It’s been over a year since I first watched the video of Henry, an Alzheimer’s patient awakened by music. More than a million others have also seen this YouTube clip. But now I view the dementia-music link in a new light.
For the past few months, my mother’s been losing her ability to speak. Her words have a strange shape and rhythm that resembles language from an undiscovered planet. My knowledge of her needs usually helps me figure out what Mom wants. But the relationship does not work in reverse. I must say things two, three — even five times — before she can interpret “let”s walk” or “do you want more juice?”
I don’t mind experimenting with different words to help her understand better. As a writer, I do a lot of that for other people. But last week I had an experience that changed the way I look at this problem. Mom was involved in a music activity with a group of people who have dementia. A volunteer with no musical training passed around a box of simple percussion instruments like wood blocks and tambourines. She asked each person in the room to sing a one verse solo of This Little Light of Mine. Mom always been shy about singing, but she liked playing the tambourine and that seemed to give her the courage to sing.
Her words came out garbled, but she made it through the verse and kept playing the tambourine while others sang. When it was time for us to go, I said, “Mom, it’s time to get up.” She stood immediately, with no help from me. I told her we needed to walk to the next room, and she did it. No guidance, no need for me to repeat. Something about singing and playing had activated her old ability to take directions and understand what I was saying! Although we’ve used music with her for a long time, she is normally in a more passive role, like listening or dancing. It seemed to me that singing and playing had a far greater impact on her.
Of course, I’m not the first person to notice this. Petr Janata, associate professor of psychology at UC Davis’ Center for Mind and Brain, has been studying the relationship between music and brain activity for a long time. Janata has theorized that the region of the brain where memories are stored and retrieved “also serves as a hub that links familiar music, memories and emotion.” This hub is located in a part of the brain that is “one of the last areas of the brain to atrophy over the course of the disease.”
Janata believes that “a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head. It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person’s face in your mind’s eye….We can see the association between those two things — the music and the memories.” He is involved a number of exciting research projects that examine this connection between music and memory. Janata is also looking at the link between spirituality and music.
I never doubted that music helped my mother feel happier and more interested in life. But after last week’s tambourine performance, I’m thinking of new ways we can use music to help her even more. Have you had any experiences that can teach us how to improve our use of music with loved ones?