My Dad, Alzheimer’s Disease, and Music

by | Dec 16, 2012

Within the past few weeks, my sisters and I have witnessed a dramatic downturn in my Dad’s health. At 86 years of age, he has shown the signs of dementia for a while. He has had heart attacks and a number of mini strokes, probably more of them than we know about. With each stroke, his mental faculties become weaker.

After a recent event in which he got lost trying to find his way home from a restaurant, found himself lost in a town 19 miles away. He was involved in an accident that totaled his car and another vehicle. Soon after that event, doctors diagnosed him with Alzeimer’s disease. Life has changed dramatically for him and for us, his children. The short version is that he is now in a nursing home where he will probably live for the rest of his life.

Dad was a minister prior to his retirement. I do not remember a time when he was not preaching somewhere or looking for an opportunity to discuss the Bible with someone. Alzeimer’s and dementia in general have, at least to some degree, taken away his ability to preach or even to read his Bible. His vision has been negatively affected in such a way that he can no longer read.

When I learned about his inability to read, the idea occurred to me that he might like to hear some hymns played simply on the piano. I put together a short CD of instrumental music for him. The CD consisted mostly of hymns with a couple of my original pieces thrown in. I did not personally get to see him listening to them, but my sisters told me that he heard them, recognized some of them, and enjoyed the music.

On the heels of that little project, I decided to look into the subject of music and Alzheimer’s patients. I discovered some fascinating information. It seems that music has a way of bypassing some of the dementia that they suffer. According to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, “Music has power—especially for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. And it can spark compelling outcomes even in the very late stages of the disease.”

The Alzheimer’s Foundation article further states, “When used appropriately, music can shift mood, manage stress-induced agitation, stimulate positive interactions, facilitate cognitive function, and coordinate motor movements. This happens because rhythmic and other well-rehearsed responses require little to no cognitive or mental processing. They are influenced by the motor center of the brain that responds directly to auditory rhythmic cues. A person’s ability to engage in music, particularly rhythm playing and singing, remains intact late into the disease process because, again, these activities do not mandate cognitive functioning for success.”

Apparently the effect that music has on Alzheimer’s patients can vary depending upon whatever was happening when the patient first heard the music. For example, if the music was a part of a happy time in the patient’s earlier (pre-dementia) years, it could be a source of uplifting energy for the patient. If, on the other hand, the music somehow represented a sad time for the patient, he or she might experience depression or sadness upon hearing the music.

I expect to be doing more research into the subject of Alzheimer’s patients and music. It would be a joyful thing for me if my music could somehow bring happiness and a smile to someone whose dementia makes him or her unable to take care of himself or herself.