Paying attention to the music

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.
January 1st, 2018

Music is all around us but it took a holiday meal at a memory care center to remind me of its power to restore us to ourselves even if only for as long as we pay attention. My wife and I were there for a special dinner served to the strains of familiar tunes like “She’ll be Comin’ Round the Mountain” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

Accustomed as I had become, even at the center, to crooners singing American standards from the big band era and younger vocalists doing easy listening favorites, I made a face somewhere in the middle of “Yankee Doodle” and asked my wife what happened to Sinatra.

The answer came quickly from the young care worker sitting next to me and assisting one of the residents with her meal. Oh, she said, our residents find this music very calming. Five minutes later, Frank, Ole Blue Eyes himself, was singing about how it had been a very good year.

I don’t know if my question had anything to do with the change in playlists and, if that change made any difference at all in the residents’ level of engagement, it wasn’t obvious.

Some kept their eyes mostly closed while aides or family members helped them to eat. Others were more alert and hungry enough to feed themselves for brief intervals until they too nodded off until someone prompted them to open their eyes and eat some more.

When not helping their loved ones eat, family members tried to engage them in conversation and talked with one another and with other families on the same journey.

We said hello to a woman we first met in a support group almost two years ago, shortly after her mother had moved into the facility. There is a kinship we all feel with one another, a bond forged by the challenges we share and whether we talk at length, exchange a few words or even just a smile, we seem to be saying that we understand. While no two people with dementia follow the same course, the direction is inexorably downward and that takes its toll on everyone.

By now, Frank had finished telling us it had been a very good year, sang the praises of New York, New York, and made sure we all knew that he did it his way. While the music played in the background, we tried to engage our loved ones and talked with one another.

As we would in any social group, we talked about our interests, where we were from, what we were planning for the future and, in the process, discovered that we had more in common than caring for a family member with dementia.

At some point, Frank shared the mike with other crooners and the music played on, a soundtrack for the stories of the alert and the twilight dreams of those too tired to stay awake.

The dinner took place on the first floor of the center where residents in more advanced stages of dementia have their rooms. Another party, open to all, with desserts and a live swing band was going strong on the ground floor, so we decided to drop in before we headed home.

Most of the party-goers were from the facility’s second floor where the newly-arrived or more slowly declining residents live. The room was full of new faces as our old friends had moved to the first floor, transferred to other facilities or passed away.

The band playing in the corner of the room included a guitarist who did the vocals, a saxophone player, a man with an upright bass and a trombone player. The music was by turns bright and soulful and the audience was thoroughly engaged. Even among those with more advance dementia, the sleepers awoke, the drowsy opened their eyes, and those who usually stared vacantly focused on the music.

Heads nodded and toes tapped to the beat of one song after another and smiles broke across the faces of the impassive. The man with the trombone was one of the facility’s residents but there was nothing about his playing or the way he talked music with his band mates between songs that betrayed his condition. When he finished a solo, the applause of the audience seemed to hold a special warmth.

As I sat there enjoying the music, I thought about a man with chronic schizophrenia, a long-term resident of a hospital where I once worked, who was the first to greet me when I started there.

Over a period of almost two decades, I came to know him well but what I remember most of all is the way he played the fiddle. His music was an island of clarity, order and beauty in the midst of a level of general disorganization that kept him in the hospital more than half his life.

His story is not unusual. The popular press and the literature of psychology, neurology, and music therapy is filled with examples of men and women who retain the ability to sing or play an instrument, often with a high level of proficiency, when mental illness or dementia robs them of so much of their identity.

You don’t have to be a musician or hear a live band to appreciate the music that surrounds us but you do have to pay attention. Music is all around us. It comes from the radio, a CD player, or the internet in any genre from any time of your life that you may wish to revisit in the chambers of your memory. And when memory fades and all else is gone, music is there to speak to your soul and bring you home to yourself.

Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist formerly at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.

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