Music - The back door into the mind

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Greyscale image of hands playing a piano from sheet music

In this blog post, Helen Rommelaar, whose mother is living with Alzheimer’s disease, discusses the positive impact of music on her mother’s wellbeing.

My mother has Alzheimer’s disease. She was diagnosed eight years ago. Since then her speech and comprehension have deteriorated significantly. She no longer reads and having a conversation with her is challenging.

However, the one activity she has been able to maintain is playing the piano. When I visit her I often arrive to a rendition of a Schumann Kinderszenen or a Schubert Impromptu, accompanied by singing. The notes are perfect, the rhythm exact and all played so musically. Sometimes as a test, I ask her to read a new piece from sight. It is often slow but amazingly accurate.

When I take Mum to visit her sister, they communicate by singing and playing duets on the piano. The few words they do say are about how beautiful music is, how happy music makes them feel and how lucky they are to have music in their lives.

To see the effect of music on a person living with dementia, one has only to watch the documentary Alive Inside by Michael Rossato-Bennett. One of the most moving moments of the film is when, after years of isolation and unresponsiveness, Henry suddenly becomes alive and animated while listening to the music of his youth. A once silent Henry lightens up, starts singing, responds to questions and then gives a detailed account of his childhood.

I have already compiled a selection of my mother’s favourite pieces for that time when she no longer recognises me. When I need to enter the back door into her mind to give her identity and joy, I will whip out my iPod and press play.