MUSIC AND MEMORY LOSS (AND STRENGTHENING?)

I have finally found an organized activity for Ralph that he not only will attend but actually seems to enjoy. The Ochsner brain clinic has started a research project on the value of music therapy for Alzheimer’s patients, and when a spot was offered, I jumped on it. 

Before our first session, Ralph was clearly nervous and bit leary, as he is of anything medical. I kept assuring him he would not be having cognitive tests or any shots, and he seemed to believe me, but he was more doubtful when I said he would have fun. I wasn’t sure myself.

It was awkward at first. We met Meredith in a typical, very small medical examination room that did not seem conducive to a creative musical experience. Meredith was young and blond, non-descript behind her mask, as we were. We made the usual small talk, and as usual, Ralph kept turning to me to answer questions for him while I sat slightly apart trying to keep quiet and make him answer for himself. Almost grudgingly he told Meredith he played guitar a little and that he was partial to Bob Dylan. I might have (definitely) interjected there, saying he’d played seriously as a kid and had interviewed major country and folk musicians as a journalist in his youth. She nodded mildly and I thought to myself She’s too young and tentative for this to work.

Then she pulled out her guitar and began to sing. CRAZY, the Patsy Cline classic written by Willie Nelson. It may seem an odd choice, given Meredith was singing to a man with what is labeled dementia, but who cares. It turned out that even masked Meredith, who got a degree at NYU, can really belt out a song. And how crazy was it, in a good way, when Ralph almost immediately began to sing along unprompted. He knew almost all the words. At the end she clapped. And so did he. 

She asked if he’d like to play her guitar. Hesitantly he started Blowing in the Wind, then gathered some steam and it was her turn to sing along. She pulled out more songs. She played the guitar but gave him drums to improvise with. They sang and sang. Of course he didn’t remember all the words, but who would. Meredith was genuinely enjoying Ralph. When she introduced some rhythm and memory exercises, I held my breath waiting for him to resist, but he went along like a trouper. And coincidently days later I heard a science report the the research shows statistical evidence that playing music helps cognitive function, particularly for those with Mild Cognitive Impairment or in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Ralph’s diagnosis has held in early Alzheimer’s so he is the perfect candidate for this “therapy.”

At Meredith’s request, Ralph now takes his guitar him. As I push him to get ready each Friday morning,  I do have to remind him how much he enjoys the sessions and he looks at me grumbling I do? But once he’s there, he’s fine. Usually now I sit in the waiting room because I think letting him have this magical hour alone is probably better, but I did sit in again the other week just for fun because listening to the two of them harmonizing with the voices and instruments as Meredith guides him along is  like a mini concert.

Still, as lovely as this new experience has been, it is also bittersweet. Rick’s relationship to music has changed. Only 19 months ago when Ralph and his oldest son pulled out their guitars at Christmas, Ralph could play one song after another as if one song reminded him of another, some well known, some obscure. It was as if his cognitive impairment dropped away.  That is not exactly the case now. When I ask him to play at home, joking–Serenade me while I cook–he usually says he’s too tired. And if I push and he gets out the guitar, he clings to Blowing in the Wind. It is the one song he’s comfortable with now. Without Meredith sitting beside him, he struggles to find the chords and words. Meredith is giving him a playbook and I hope that will help because at the moment he doesn’t seem willing to try other songs on his own. The diminishment is almost more apparent. 

Almost, but Ralph’s joy each Friday hasn’t. 

Which raises a reality I think about a lot—that Ralph with his cognitive impairment seems happier than he ever was without it, and than I am living with him a lot of the time.

6 thoughts on “MUSIC AND MEMORY LOSS (AND STRENGTHENING?)

  1. Hi Alice –

    It may have been a couple years since I’ve posted here, but I still enjoy following your journey with Ralph. I’ve always been a couple years behind Ralph, but unfortunately seem to be gaining on him. My memory and intellectual functioning still seem to be holding on, but I have increasing problems with visual/spatial cognition (e.g., inability to recognize/identify common objects if they’re in an area with many objects), behavioral symptoms (irritability & anxiety), and especially fatigue Most of the time I feel like I have to really push myself to keep moving, keep doing stuff, because I’d rather just sit and do nothing. My neurologist actually referred to me twice at my last appointment as his “dementia patient.” The nerve of that man.

    I’m prompted to post today because of your message about music. I also played the guitar when I was younger – for about 15 minutes. But I took it up for real when I retired about 30 months ago. It has been absolutely wonderful for me.

    I try to play every day for an hour & succeed most of the time. I am getting better at it and I feel good about that, so there’s an immediate benefit there.

    I also remembered how my mother, who had Alzheimer’s, use to sweep the same area of our steps with a broom, over and over. It seemed to calm her down. So sometimes when I feel myself getting anxious, I decided to just practice playing scales or particular finger-picking patterns, over and over. My neurologist has prescribed Zoloft to help with my anxiety, but sometimes I can get more immediate relief playing scales.

    Very interested to read that there’s a study on music & AD. When I told my neurologist I was learning to play, he thought it was a good thing, but thought it would have been better to learn a new language from an AD standpoint. Maybe it wasn’t!

    Best wishes and encouragement to all.

    Heading Somewhere

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    1. So good to hear from you. I have wondered how you were doing. I’m sorry you having spatial/visual issues, and I know the fatigue makes life more difficult. But I am as impressed as always by your fighting spirit– your gentle grit. I am amazed at your discipline under the circumstances. To play for an hour daily is wonderful. And I do think you made a good choice to go for music rather than a foreign language because music engages not only our mental resources but also our emotions and our memories in particular according to what I’ve read. We hear or play a song and it brings us back to other moments in our lives. And it makes us happy. Please keep playing. You really are an inspiration….I am going to mention you to Ralph as an example…

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  2. Dad really enjoyed his Musical Minds sessions. It was a group thing and at first he didn’t want to go, then he said he’d go but was not going to sing. As soon as the music started he was off and singing his heart out. A small group of musicians played a variety of music from folk to wartime tunes and a good few pop tunes. Everyone was handed a sheet on which the words were written but Dad didn’t need them. I was astonished to find he knew the words of every Jim Reeves song. I learned a lot about my dad through those sessions. He loved them and although five minutes after getting home he forgot where he’d been the ‘feel-good factor’ remained for a while after.

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    1. Doing group music would be wonderful for Ralph, but at the moment it is not available. I hope it will be down the road, since I do think socializing would be good for him, as much as he says he doesn’t like to be around other people. And he does as I will discuss in the next day or so since an issue seems to be arising…..Great to hear from you Mary.

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  3. Thank you for mentioning how Ash looks to you to answer questions for him. Robert does the same thing and I wasn’t sure if it was just a natural thing (we’ve been married for 57 years so he expects me to know everything important about him) or if it was the dementia. Your post confirms what I presumed… it’s the dementia. Robert is still classified as being in the early stage, but I can see he’s moving into Stage 2. More depression at this point. :/

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    1. Yes, now that we are officially Early Alzheimer’s, I am noticing more changes. More lethargy and less ability to understand simple conversations, a tendency to get confused by uncomplicated statements. Watching Ralph in his music “lesson” was not unlike watching a young child…..Thanks for writing.

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