Dementia Care: Surrounded by Sound

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It’s been almost a year since I first put together a playlist of Mum’s favorite music. Trawling iTunes for the greatest hits of the 1940s and 50s, Mum and I happily rediscovered the songs of her youth—Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Vera Lynn and the rest.

Once the compilation was burned to a CD, I played it for Mum wherever I could—in the car, on the stereo at home, and more recently in her room at the rest home, through an ‘80s-style boombox. Mum seemed to like the “stereogram,” but despite my best efforts, she was completely unable to work it. Plus it occupied valuable space on the tallboy in her tiny room.

After a few weeks, Mum confided that she wanted “that thing” gone, so I took it away.

Then I stumbled upon Playlist for Life (playlistforlife.org.uk), a UK-based organization that “works to bring the benefits of personally meaningful music in dementia care to as many people as possible.” According to them, the best way for people with dementia to experience music is through headphones connected to an iPod.

I immediately bought a pair of over-the-ear headphones, but buying a cheap version of an iPod was another matter altogether. The thing is, no one makes them anymore. Almost everyone keeps their music on their phone these days, which has to mean people are throwing iPods out.

A little while ago, a discarded iPod happily found its way to me.

My daughter and I set to work, finding as many songs as we could from Mum’s early years. We copied them to the iPod. Last Saturday I packed the iPod and headphones in a gift box and set off for Mum’s rest home.

This is how it went:

I carefully position the headphones on Mum’s head and we scroll through the list of artists. “Chopin,” says Mum. “I’d really like Chopin.” The effect is immediate and extraordinary. A look of amazement spreads across her face as the sound hits and then surrounds her. There is a delighted moment of recognition as the waltz begins and then three minutes of total mental and physical absorption.

First it’s her fingers. Mum’s “playing” the piece just as she remembers playing it herself on the piano many years ago. Then the orchestra comes in, and now Mum’s conducting. Then she’s back to playing. Next thing I know, she’s on her feet, crying and swaying from side to side.

“Can you hear it?” shouts Mum. I shake my head. Then I hold her to keep her from falling and we dance a little together. Mum’s both laughing and crying.

“It’s making me very emotional,” she exclaims. “So strange, that I can hear it and you can’t.” The concerto ends and Mum collapses onto the bed.

We scroll through the list of artists again. “Oooh, Inia Te Wiata,” Mum coos. “Old, old songs. Where did you find these?”

Before I can reply, the music starts again and Mum’s away. They're Maori action songs, and Mum’s got all the actions. She’s clapping her hands together, slapping her knees and doing that diagonal arm cross thing. Then she begins to sing in a thin voice, almost wailing, her eyes closed in deep concentration. At first she’s tentative, as though she’s misplaced the words somewhere and can't quite find them. She gains confidence and before long she’s found both the words and the sureness to keep up. All the time, she’s crying and singing and telling me how it’s taking her back. “Back a long, long way.”

Once we’ve finished, as we’re walking arm-in-arm along the corridor out of the rest home, I ask Mum about the music.

“When did you learn those songs?” I ask. “Who taught you?”

“I have no idea. I just can’t remember,” Mum muses. “I was brought up with them. So long ago and it’s all gone.” She’s wobbly and teary and amazed.

“You’re still crying,” I observe. “Is that good crying or the other sort?”

“Good?” Mum ventures. “Oooh, yes, it’s good! That was extraordinary.”

Then she stops and grips my shoulders.

“When can we do that again?”

Sarah Jane is a freelance writer/researcher and part-time caregiver for her mother Eleanor* who has dementia and lives at a rest home nearby. Sarah and her mother spend Saturdays enjoying each other’s company, pottering about and having the occasional adventure. Sarah lives in New Zealand where she writes and speaks about dementia-related issues.

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5 Comments

Thank you! I have shared your article giving you full credit - a lot of us are caregivers and many have their loved ones in a nursing home. I hope this can help many to make Mom &/or Dad's remaining time enjoyable.
Wow, thats a great story with an amazing outcome! Thanks for sharing it!
On most players there is a button with an arrow in a circular`motion which will automatically replay the disc or tape until you change it or stop it. My son used to play the piano weekly at a local nursing home and the patients
enjoyed watching & hearing him play. Music therapy to
include patient participation could be beneficial.