Small Talk

Music, memory, and Alzheimer's Disease

October 4th, 2016

My mother still recognizes me. I see the light in her eyes, but it fades quicker now, and she returns to a flat affect.

In the last many months that I've been visiting her at the care home, I've noticed she doesn't speak much and does a lot of staring straight ahead. She answers in one word whispers without looking at me.

I tell her the same things every time - Olivia is in the fourth grade, Olivia dances, I'm a housewife now - and every time, I don't get much reaction. Then I just sit next to her quietly and hold her hand.

It's OK. We don't have to talk. We can just be.

My social worker friend, Mari Fran, pointed out that problems with communication come at the final stage of this disease. (http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_stages_of_alzheimers.asp) This realization made me morose.

I've long accepted her condition, and I have already grieved a lot. Part of me is ready for her eventual passing. She is a sweet person, still, but she is not the woman who raised me.

Yet hearing out loud the words "final stage" hit me harder than I expected. Please know that just because it's termed "final" doesn't mean there's anything quick about it. People can live a few years like this.

I wanted to do something nice for her. I would have anyway, now that I have time and more energy, but I felt a little more urgency.

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My dear friend Trey Terada is a professional ukulele player, and I asked him to visit with me one day and give her a mini-concert. He was kind enough to agree.

She lit up when he started strumming. Her face was full of joy and life again, her eyes were alive, and her hands waved along with the Hawaiian music. "I used to dance some hula," she told him happily.

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I haven't seen her this vivacious in months. She smiled more in the one hour with Trey than she has in three months of my visits.

When he took a little break, I launched into our usual small talk conversation (Olivia, Olivia, housewife), and she actually looked at me and reacted more than usual.

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I think the music really helped us connect. Music has so many therapeutic effects; the Mayo Clinic says "musical memories are often preserved in Alzheimer's disease because key brain areas linked to musical memory are relatively undamaged by the disease... Music can also benefit caregivers by reducing anxiety and distress, lightening the mood and providing a way to connect with loved ones who have Alzheimer's disease — especially those who have difficulty communicating."

It was just such a different energy on this day, than it has been for a long time. It was upbeat and present. I am so grateful.

Yes, I can play recorded music, but there's something special about live music and interaction with the musician. She was so tickled that he came just for her.

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"Come closer so I can kiss you," she asked him, after his last song. "I just love you. I'm so glad I met you."

Trey leaned in, obligingly. I was so content about all of it, so thankful for this moment.

"I love you, Mom," I said to her.

She looked at me. "I love him," she responded.

I think that's a joke. And if so, then that's the mom I knew - always humorous. What a gift to see that again, just for today, thanks to the magic of music and my friend Trey.

Short video of Trey playing: https://youtu.be/bnn5ZlJ9QZc

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