” Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything. It is the essence of order and lends to all that is good and just and beautiful.” – Plato
For as long as I have known Nan she has loved music. So I knew from the beginning of her dementia that this would be common ground on which we could meet and enjoy our time together. But I never fully understood the impact that music can have on a dementia patient until I witnessed an incredible phenomenon while she was living in her unit for the memory impaired. What I saw astounded and amazed me. And when it happened over and over again, I was convinced that it was nothing short of a miracle.
Nan’s neighbors on the unit consisted of individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds. All they really had in common was that each was suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. And this is why the following story is so remarkable.
Whenever I came to visit, we always took the time to sit on her comfortable loungers and listen to music on her CD player. Typically we left her door open, so inevitably our music would drift out into the hallway. Soon after beginning the first track, a visitor or two would arrive at our door in order to listen to a Broadway melody or an old Baptist hymn. some would close their eyes and smile. Others would sway gently to the rhythm. Others would just stare into oblivion as if entangled in the entrancing net of our music. There were days when as many as ten residents would find their way into Nan’s room.
I was not amazed that they loved our music, but I found it staggering that our visitors represented all stages of dementia. It did not matter if they were newly diagnosed or staring blankly into space; they were drawn to our music. It was as if they were reacting instinctively. For me, this was proof that long after it appears like a dementia patient is nonresponsive to external stimulus, their senses are still alive and engaged. They still have that spark that seeks out loveliness.
Two particular pieces seemed to have their own special magic. When we played these our attendance grew exponentially. Both were by Johann Sebastian Bach. The first was Glenn Gould playing the French Suite No. 5 in G minor, BWV 816, Gigue, a lively and happy dance. The second was the Partita No. 2 in C minor, BWV 826, Sarabande, a slow and poignant, almost sad dance. When these pieces were played the patients gather not just in the doorway, but came deep into the room as if trying to find the music. I don’t know if they were attracted to Bach’s trademark mathematical rhythm, or if they were drawn in by the sheer beauty of the melodies. Perhaps it was both. All I know is that when Nan and I would play our Bach, patients gathered around us like a multitude of notes written on a page of sheet music. Music was a touchstone that was able to connect these patients to the outside world.
There are countless ways to bring the miracle of music into the life of your loved one. Consider taking your loved one to a local concert or accompany them to a musical performance at their facility. Scan your local television schedule for upcoming musical programs. They need not be high-brow. Nan loved reruns of The Lawrence Welk Show that airs on our local PBS station. Libraries offer a wide range of symphonic and chamber music performances on DVD and CD. If you have access to the Internet, consider downloading a personalized Internet radio station from a free service like Pandora. CDs of ocean waves or birdsong are another wonderful source of listening pleasure. Or better yet, why not place a set of wind chimes near your loved one’s window so they can hear the music of the wind?