In a recent New York Times article, “Giving Alzheimer’s Patients Their Way, Even Chocolate,” the use of food, art, music, and exercise were highlighted as means to generate positive emotions and to engage people with dementia in positive activities. Last week I had the pleasure of witnessing the power of music, as part of my new staff orientation to Rainbow Hospice and Palliative Care, based in Park Ridge.

I had the pleasure of shadowing Tae Kim, one of our music therapists, on home visits to a couple of our hospice patients. My favorite visit involved a couple, George and Ethel, whom I just happened to know from my former parish in Edgewater. George has had Alzheimer’s disease for the past 8-10 years and is now in the advanced stages. Ethel said he now utters just two complete sentences: What’s next? What’s to eat? However, when Tae began singing and playing his portable keyboard, George could sing entire songs. He happily sang Silent Night in his native Polish as well as several other songs that he learned long ago. He thoroughly enjoyed all of them including the chorus of Auld Lang Syne: Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? For a change, George did not forget.

To our amazement, George even initiated a couple of songs that Tae picked up on immediately with his magical keyboard. He happily clapped at the end of each song and asked, “What’s next?” He was still beaming long after the music had stopped. Somehow the good feelings lingered when the memory faded away.

Ethel tearfully joined us in singing and remarked, “I think I’m getting more out of this than him!” Tae had encouraged her to use a tape recorder so that she could sing along with George after we left. She carefully recorded every song and proudly said that their kids and grandkids could now hear how much George still enjoys music and singing. They can now sing along with him on his latest recording!

I again saw how music can tap into the long-term memories of people with dementia and create meaningful moments. I was also reminded of the importance of enabling family caregivers to maintain connections with their loved ones. It was a therapeutic visit for everyone.

Daniel Kuhn, LCSW, is a Community Educator for Rainbow Hospice and Palliative Care.

The views and opinions expressed in these blogs do not necessarily represent those of CMSS or its affiliates.

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