Making connections through music in advanced dementia

Categories: Care.

Music may be that remarkable “other thing” that extends to places out of reach for other interventions in dementia care. Research indicates that music, especially individualized music that is preferential and familiar and that triggers positive associations, may enhance quality of life, reduce agitation and provide comfort to persons with dementia.

Dr. Oliver Sacks, neurologist and music lover, recounts several stories in his book Musicophilia about the impact of music in dementia care. “It is the inner life of music which can still make contact with their inner lives, with them; which can awaken the hidden, seemingly extinguished soul; and evoke a wholly personal response of memory, associations, feelings, images, a return of thought and sensibility, an answering identity.”

My own personal connection to dementia has been with my grandmother, Hilda Gross whom we affectionately called Nanny. She lived until the age of 95. In her last 7-8 years of life, she had a series of mini-strokes that left her living with vascular dementia.

Music played an enormous role in my connection with my grandmother, Nanny Gross.  As a child, she would come and straighten my shoulders as I practiced.  Somehow, this was her way of cheering me on.  When I was a music student, she would come to my recitals and be interested in what I was studying and learning.   Music was a natural part of our relationship, something that joined us together. 

Often when I went to see her at the nursing home, I’d wheel her to the piano and play some tunes.  During the last five years of her life, Nanny suffered from dementia and music was the means we connected.  Especially on Christmas morning. I would go to the nursing home and sing carols and she would “wake up” and try to sing along.

I expressed how I felt about my relationships with Nanny in a song written 5 years before she died. You can hear this song, Pictures in My Heart it on Youtube It was cathartic for me then and it remains my connection to her now.

I had the privilege of being there when Nanny took her last breath. She was the first user of Room 217 music. We could see she was connecting with the songs. The head on her little frail body moved towards the CD player ever so slightly in order to hear the gentle music. Her breathing became more relaxed. And we connected with her through the music as the songs expressed for us what we wanted to tell her: “Did you ever know that you’re my hero…you’re the wind beneath my wings.” “He will raise you up on eagles wings…hold you in the palm of his hand”. Her last breath was taken on the last phrase of the last song, All Through the Night. This was a strong communication to us that she was well. She was going to sleep. She was at peace.

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