Your parent has dementia. And he or she seems unreachable. But wait. The key that unlocks his or her memories and emotions may be as simple as singing a song.
"People with Alzheimer's Disease and other dementias can respond to music when nothing else reaches them," says Oliver Sacks, neurologist, author and contributor to The Oprah Magazine. "...Musical memory somehow survives the ravages of the disease, and even in people with advanced dementia, music can often reawaken personal memories and associations otherwise lost."
In my own experience working with families and their loved ones with dementia, I've seen the power of music. The elderly worshipers in a nursing home Sunday service nod off for most of the hour. That is, until, "Amazing Grace," is played. And miraculously, those who normally have no words can suddenly sing the hymn's lyrics, flawlessly! In my husband's Grandma's case, Alzheimer's took away her speech, but couldn't snatch the words of "Jesus Loves Me" from her lips. In her difficult last days, she sang the song. Those words comforted her, and us, as well.
The Alzheimers Foundation of America offers some suggestions on choosing music to enjoy with your loved one.
1. Top 10 Picks: Selections from your parent's young adult years, from ages 18 to 15, offer the most potential for engagement. Frank Sinatra, Kate Smith, Lawrence Welk, Big Band Music can set your parent's toes tapping. I remembered one man named Jack whose struggles with memory were forgotten when he attended a weekly dance at the senior center. Suddenly he was 18 again and the memories flowed. "My buddies and I would drive 100 miles to those dances. It was wonderful," he said.
2. Unfamiliar Music: Because it carries no emotions or memories, this type of music can aid physical relaxation or enhance sleep. Think soft and soothing.
3. Late Stage Dementia: Songs from a person's childhood can comfort, relax, and demonstrate love and caring. Folk songs in the language the elderly learned them are also powerful. For those with religious faith, hymns can help them connect with God and with the people they love.
So sing a song. Even if it's off key. In the process, you may reach your aging parent in a more powerful way than words alone could do.