AKRON — Sunshine spilled through the windows. The autumn leaves cast a warm glow on the room, making it cheerful and inviting. Yet many kept their heads down and their eyes closed.
The caregivers at the Barberton, Ohio, Pleasant View Health Care Center spoke their names, but some residents failed to respond — until the music started. Often lost in their own worlds, now they began tapping their feet.
Those who are usually alert during the sessions encouraged those who are generally not.
Though too exhausted to remain alert for the entire time, one elderly resident sprang into consciousness when she heard a favorite tune, even pretending to play the piano; perhaps it was something she did when her mind and body were whole.
“I’ve watched very lethargic and withdrawn residents come out of their shells and connect with the world,” explained certified music therapist Kathy Lindberg, who was working with the room of mostly women on a recent afternoon. “Facilities often look at the residents who are withdrawn, won’t come out of their rooms, or sleep their lives away, to come to this kind of therapy.”
In Oliver Sacks’ book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, he writes about various ailments, including dementia, and the positive effect music can have.
“The aim of music therapy in people with dementia … seeks to address the emotions, cognitive powers, thoughts, and memories, the surviving of ‘self’ of the patient, to stimulate these and bring them to the fore. It aims to enrich and enlarge existence, to give freedom, stability, organization, and focus.”
Though he admits that it might seem like a tall order in patients with advanced dementia, music therapy with such patients is possible because the perception, sensibility, emotion, and memory of music can survive long after other forms of memory have disappeared. (Country star Glen Campbell, despite being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s two years ago, is still performing in a “Goodbye Tour.”)
“Music of the right kind,” Sacks wrote, “can serve to orient and anchor a patient when almost nothing else can.”
When working with the elderly, Lindberg concentrates on tunes that were hits in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. In a few years, as more baby boomers move into full and assisted care facilities, Lindberg will switch to songs by artists such as Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles.
“Men and women may be sitting in a room, not knowing where or who they are, but can remember the words to all their favorite songs,” Lindberg said. “Making a connection to something in their lives causes what I like to call ‘the magic of music therapy.’
“If you sing ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ it brings back so many memories. Then they are connecting to their world. It might be in the past, but they’re communicating … and connecting to their immediate environment. They are out of that fog.”
That connection to music sometimes carries on to other parts of their lives — making someone alert when they were previously seemingly catatonic.
Sacks notes there is no significant carryover effect of the power of music for some ailments; a Parkinson’s disease patient, he wrote, can regain more coordination of his or her movements with music, but once the music stops, so too does the benefit.
“There can, however, be longer-term effects of music for people with dementia — improvements of mood, behavior, even cognitive function — which can persist for hours or days after they have been set off by music.”
“It touches them in a way that just makes them want to do things,” said Vivian Cavendish, activity director at Pleasant View.
Whether you like it or not, music is everywhere in our lives. It’s played in shopping centers, at sporting events, on television, and in restaurants.
“I only had one resident in my career who was averse to music,” Lindberg said. “He hated it and avoided it the best he could. But the truth is, we all have some relationship to music. You can’t escape it.”