It’s hard to imagine the residents of a dementia care facility coming together to form a choir, each singing different parts in harmony. But that’s exactly what happens on Tuesday nights at Holland Home’s Verblauw Center in Grand Rapids, Mich., when we lead weekly live music sessions with the residents. Sometimes we silence our instruments and sing a cappella because those harmonies are so beautiful.
Music has healing and restorative powers, and it brings joy and hope for people who are living in the fog of dementia—even those who are in the advanced stages. It helps them to reconnect with their life in three crucial areas: mind, body, and soul.
One night when we sang the old hymn “In the Garden,” a dear friend in her 80s sang all the words with us from memory. She said, “My mother used to sing that song with me when I was a little girl!” Although she suffers from severe memory loss, that familiar old song triggered memories that had been filed away in her brain some 75 years ago.
People who are generally incommunicative often begin to smile and sing or clap their hands when they participate in a sing-along. The daughter of one resident came up to me after one session with a big smile on her face and tears in her eyes. She said, “Mom hasn’t spoken in a long time, but when you started playing and singing “Amazing Grace,” she sang along and remembered all the words!”
And it’s not just the lyrics people remember. The majority of these residents remember the melodies and rhythms to all the old songs they love—and even the harmonies. In a group sing-along setting, they will sing parts and harmonize with each other. Most of the great old hymns of the Christian faith were composed with soprano, alto, tenor, and bass lines, and that’s exactly how people remember them.
Recently I observed one resident who sat in her wheelchair, head down and motionless for the first few songs we sang. Then we started playing a hard-charging bluegrass version of “Power in the Blood.” The sudden change in her demeanor was amazing—she lifted up her head and smiled, sang along, and clapped her hands in tempo! From that point forward she was engaged in the music.
We’ve all experienced how memories somehow seem to get “stuck” to certain songs. Listening to a song from our high school or college days on an “oldies” station—even years later—brings back memories of what we were doing and who we were with when that song was playing on the hit parade.
Brain research helps us understand why. Scientists have found that the part of the brain thatprocesses and tracks music (the rostromedial prefrontal cortex) is also active during memory retrieval. Research shows that the prefrontal lobe is one of the last areas of the brain to atrophy in people with Alzheimer’s, which helps to explain why even those in the advanced stages of the disease are able to recall song lyrics and music from their past when most other memories have faded away.
“Singing is a very physical process; when you’re making music your body responds as if you were giving it a physical workout,” says Eric Roter, a physician and Juilliard-trained musician. So in addition to singing, we hand out percussion instruments and encourage people to help keep the beat. Our group sessions last one hour, and we sing pretty much nonstop for the whole time. The simple act of singing stimulates breathing and benefits the lungs and the circulatory system.
"Your music doesn't cure me, but it sure makes me feel better!"
Even the most uncommunicative patients will clap their hands, smile, and sway to the rhythm, often with eyes closed; they simply can’t help but move with the music. In their mind’s eye they’re somewhere familiar.
After one of our music sessions, Jay commented, “Your music doesn’t cure me, but it sure makes me feel better!”Although he is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s, the music stimulated him to make this observation with great clarity.
Simply put, making music brings joy to the spirit. Spiritual songs also provide a vital connection to people’s deeply held faith. For those whose only way of communicating is through music, singing the familiar hymns of faith allows them to commune with God. Singing words of healing, restoration, and grace has the effect of encouraging believers who otherwise may have no way to communicate their faith.
A glance around the room provides evidence that music lifts our hearts. When the music starts, people “come alive.” Even if they are unable to talk or sing, their faces brighten as they begin moving their hands or feet or rocking to the beat of the music.
I believe that music is a special gift God has given us to draw us closer to him. When we sing spiritual songs—songs of joyful worship, of quiet prayer, of praise, of reflection or confession—we feel a special connection with God. The right music can help lift us up or quiet our souls, because God truly inhabits the praises of his people.
After we sang a song she particularly enjoyed, one woman in the group clapped her hands together and exclaimed, “I just don’t know how anyone could live without music!” She was expressing a feeling deep within herself, awakened by singing, that music enriched her life and the lives of others.
As our group—most of them elderly and frail—makes music together every week, I’m reminded of the words of Psalm 146:1-2: “Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord, my soul. I will praise the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.”
Making music is good for the soul!
Rewiring the Brain with Music
In January 2011, Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords survived a shooting spree that killed six people and injured 12. Her well-documented and continuing story of recovery from a gunshot wound to the left hemisphere of her brain shows the miraculous power of music to create new pathways in the brain.
Working with music therapists and rehab specialists, Giffords has been able to recover her voice.
Music has also been linked to the areas of the brain that control memory and emotions.