I never realized the power and strength of a musical memory until my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. That dreadful disease has taken the joy and recognition from his eyes, leaving a look of fear and confusion that is common among those who suffer with the disease. It is described as a mask and like a mask only the eyes convey any feeling. The periods of his awareness pass like whiffs of smoke now. His face brightens for a few minutes when a familiar face appears and then, as if it is too much to hold the thought he is lost again. Sitting alone with his thoughts surrounded by the other patients he is silent, his face without emotion. It is only when a familiar song is played on the television that he smiles, tapping his foot rhythmically, even humming at times.
My father loved playing the piano. I have fond memories of sitting at his side while his long straight fingers reached across the keys making beautiful sounds. He played the songs from his war, World War II. He would play and sing all the verses of the Army Air Force song and as small children my siblings and I marched around the piano singing with his encouragement. Music was such an important memory of our childhood.
As his disease progressed we discovered how strong the bonds were of his memory to the music. As his mind forgets how to walk, he begins to have a shuffling gait. It is as if the thought of moving one foot and then the other is too much of a challenge to process. One afternoon my sister and I were taking him for a walk down the hallway of the nursing home. He was having difficulty navigating. I thought perhaps marching would help him remember to lift his feet if we could just figure out how to get him to march. We began to sing the Army Air Force song hoping the familiar tune would ignite a memory. Amazingly, he began to join in singing the song and marched proudly.
I have found those who suffer from Alzheimer’s in the nursing home are stimulated by music. It is the music of their generation that is the most powerful. The recognition can be subtle –if you don’t look closely you may miss the hand movement, swaying bodies or feet tapping. The progression of one’s disease produces the different responses. I have seen a hand cover a heart when the Star Spangled Banner starts and a slight smile when holiday songs are played. As I look at my father’s gnarled fingers moving to the beat of the music, I am reminded of the past. I am happy that he still enjoys the music that he taught me to appreciate. Instead of mourning his losses, I am happy that the music can still make him smile.
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