Medical Mysteries of Music

Working Through the Tragedy of Dementia with Music

The last couple of years of by grandfather’s 102-year life were wracked by the torment of dementia. He did have one comfort, though: the music he heard on his bedside radio. His experience has me fascinated by how music can help when nothing else will. Christopher forwarded this article from The Ottawa Citizen.

Twenty people sit on stacking chairs arranged in a semi-circle in a large, brightly lit room in Kanata’s Eva James Memorial Community Centre. Some are armed with shakers and other percussive instruments, while others hold lyric sheets to such songs as King of the Road, Keep on the Sunny Side, 16 Tons and Kookaburra.

In the centre of it all, singer/songwriter Jennifer Noxon plays acoustic guitar as she leads the group in song: Blue moooooon … you saw me standing alone … without a dream in my heart … without a love of my own …

As the group sings along, one of the couples — Paul and Janice Bertrand — softly hold hands and then rise to their feet. They embrace one another like the moon and tide, and begin to dance. Their gazes overflow with tenderness, love and joy. They married 28 years ago, on July 1. The date was Paul’s suggestion, so there would always be fireworks on their anniversary.

Two years ago, Paul was diagnosed with mixed dementia, in his case a combination of Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. His scores on the Montreal Cognitive Assessment test have gradually worsened with time, and as his condition deteriorates, parts of him seem to simply disappear, like pixels flickering out on an old TV screen. One morning last summer, he wondered aloud who the woman next to him in his bed was. And formerly an extremely social person, he seems increasingly content to sit at home and do nothing.

Janice, like her husband a former schoolteacher, refuses to go quietly into that night. She takes Paul to a number of programs that help keep his mind active and in social settings. The Tuesday-morning, 90-minute weekly singing group they’ve been attending for the last two years is part of a program called Minds in Song. Organized by the Alzheimer Society of Ottawa and Renfrew County, it fits the bill perfectly, for over his 78 years, music has been an integral part of Paul’s life. His mother was an operatic singer, and he’s sung in numerous choirs and groups since he was a youngster.

And it’s often through music that he now engages with the rest of the world.

Keep reading. It’s important.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 37868 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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