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Alzheimer’s and Music: “Conducting” an Emotional Visit to My Beloved, Demented Romanian Soul Mate

Posted Jan 14 2012 7:09am
After this improvised “concert” I resolved to stop being upset that my “old Ed” was gone forever. I became determined to relate to him on whatever level I could. I rejoiced in the knowledge that I could make him happy.

By Marie Marley

Ed
Family caregivers and others caring for those with Alzheimer’s have long known that music is special to these individuals. It won’t stop or slow the progression of their disease, but it can be of significant benefit to them in many other ways.

Music has the power to reach Alzheimer’s patients on a deep level.

Many can sing songs, including most or even all of the lyrics, long after their dementia has progressed beyond the point of recognizing loved ones, dressing themselves, or even remembering what happened five minutes earlier.

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Most importantly, however, music can have positive effects on the health and social functioning of Alzheimer’s patients. After listening to music some are clearly more calm, in a better mood and more outgoing than before, which improves the quality of life for both the patient and the caregiver.

Finally, music has actually been found to help those with dementia retrieve some memories their caregivers had assumed were lost forever.

My beloved 92-year-old Romanian soul mate, Ed, had been a university professor of French and a classical music lover. He loved orchestral music, especially that of Bach, Handel, Mozart and Beethoven.

He hated all forms of vocal music, however, and was always telling me he couldn’t stand to see singers on stage “with the open mouth.” Whenever he said that he opened his mouth wide and grossly mimicked an opera star hitting a really high note. I could never figure out how he thought they were supposed to emit sound without “the open mouth.”

At any rate, he’d always enjoyed watching conductors on TV, especially the flamboyant ones. The wilder they were, the more he loved watching them.

Being a former performer who had spent years playing in orchestras, I had tried to convince him that the flashy ones didn’t necessarily obtain any greater result from the players than the more sedate ones, but he never believed me.

When Ed became demented I was emotionally devastated, as are all caregivers at one point or another. My biggest sorrows was that I couldn’t find ways to have meaningful interactions with him. The worst part of it was that he had lost the ability to talk on the phone – something we’d previously done for hours every day.

In person visits weren’t much better. Although he was capable of light verbal exchanges, he wasn’t able to engage in the lively conversations we’d always had. Mostly he would deliver his two long monologues at every visit. They never varied. It was as though this demented man had actually memorized them.

One long monologue was full of praise about how beautiful I was; the other was about how lucky he was that I was visiting him.

I should have been delighted by all the affection and praise in these two monologues, but unfortunately I wasn’t. At that point I wasn’t able to accept his condition. I wanted to talk with him as we did before he became demented – not be simply talked to by him. Not be presented with the same material he repeated verbatim at every single visit.

I wanted my old Ed back. I wanted back the great man I had loved for over thirty years. The one who had been my rock. The man who had always supported me emotionally. Who had always there for me. The man with whom I talked for hours and with whom I laughed heartily during many of our conversations.

I couldn’t accept this new demented Ed with whom I had difficulty connecting, and who usually didn’t understand what I was telling him on the few occasions when I talked about what was going on in my life.

When I voiced my lament to my friends many of them suggested that I look at old photos with him, watch his favorite TV shows with him, or listen to music with him.

I had always assumed that listening to music with Ed would be boring for both of us, but one day I relented and decided to try it anyway since that particular day I couldn’t seem to reach him at all by any other means.

After trying to converse with him for a while and after listening to his two lovely but boring (to me) lengthy monologues, I put on a CD of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony and started it at the last movement.

I was greatly surprised by his reaction. Almost immediately his eyes sparkled, his whole face beamed, he sat up straight, and moved in time with the music. It was a joy to see him come to life like that.

Then, for some reason I can’t explain, I began ‘conducting’ the music and I did it in the style of his previous favorite conductors. I conducted with both hands, arms flying around, sometimes in tandem, other times going in opposite directions. That made him really smile, which made me smile and encouraged me to keep going and become even showier.

I pretended I had a baton in my right hand, and cued each section of the orchestra when it was time for their entrances. My background in music helped me pull off this whole charade in a convincing and entirely accurate manner – not that Ed would have known the difference.

Ed continued smiling broadly and moving perfectly in time with the music, which really impressed me. Typically those days he couldn’t do anything remotely near perfect.

I stretched out both arms and bounced up and down on the balls of my feet when the music was loud, then crouched down and conducted in a tiny circumscribed area using only my right hand when the music was soft.

When the music was the most pianissimo, I put my left index finger up to my lips in a “shh . . .” gesture while my right hand continued conducting in small circles. He laughed out loud at these motions which, again, inspired me to continue.

I constantly shifted my gaze to the section of the orchestra that was playing the most prominent role at a given moment.

After the final chord I made a gigantic melodramatic cut off movement, remained completely immobile for a few seconds, then bowed deeply – first to the right, then center, then left.

Ed, who had been sitting in the rocking chair during this entire theatrical production, looked positively radiant. After my final bow he looked at me and said in a soft and almost reverent tone of voice, “What you did was so beautiful.”

It brought tears to my eyes. How wrong I had been. Listening to music with Ed had been anything but boring. It had opened up a new way of relating that was satisfying to both of us. It had brought him great joy and consequently brought me joy as well.

After this improvised “concert” I resolved to stop being upset that my “old Ed” was gone forever. I became determined to relate to him on whatever level I could. I rejoiced in the knowledge that I could make him happy. I could make him smile and laugh – things he hadn’t done for months.

Seeing his joy became enough for me, and I decided to continue these performances he loved so much. All of this confirmed what I should have realized all along – music can indeed reach demented people on a deep level.

I invite all of you share your own stories about using music with your Alzheimer’s loved ones.

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Marie Marley, PhD, is a professional medical grant writer who, over the years, acquired a keen understanding of many geriatric topics, including dementia. . In Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer's and Joy she describes her remarkable 30-year relationship with Edward Theodoru, PhD, a delightfully colorful yet wickedly eccentric Romanian gentleman - the love of her life. Learn more about their story at Come Back Early Today .
More Insight and Advice for Caregivers

Original content Marie Marley, the Alzheimer's Reading Room


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