Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Challenges with care eased by music

There’s a beautiful story in a recent New York Times article that illustrates just how important music is to the person with memory loss.

Tom was a wanderer. When his wife, Elsie, came to visit him at a care unit for patients with dementia, he would give her a perfunctory kiss, then wander off through the rooms and stare out the window. Elsie tried to walk with him and hold hands, but he would shake her off, leaving her heartsick.

A music therapist at the facility, Alicia Clair, was searching for ways to help couples like Elsie and Tom connect. Ms. Clair asked Elsie if she’d like to try dancing with Tom, then put on some music from the ’40s — Frank Sinatra singing “Time after Time.” Ms. Clair said recently, “I knew Tom was a World War II vet, and vets did a lot of ballroom dancing.”

As Sinatra began singing, Elsie opened her arms, beckoning. Tom stared a moment, then walked over and began leading her in the foxtrot. “They danced for thirty minutes!” Ms. Clair said. When they were finished, Elsie broke down and sobbed. “I haven’t been held by my husband in three years,” she told Ms. Clair. “Thank you for bringing him back.”

It’s a lovely story, and it illustrates the power of music in the lives of the person with memory loss.

I remember the first time I heard one of our caregivers explain how she got a client to bathe. This client resisted everyone’s effort to help him bathe, and could quickly become angry and aggressive if pushed. We’d all tried every approach we knew, and then Wanda stepped up.

An hour later, the client was bathed, relaxed and smiling. We had to know: how did she do it?

Here’s what she said: “I just started singing with him. We sang, and walked, arm in arm to the sink. The room was already nice and warm, and the towels, soap and washcloth were already there (I did plan ahead at least that far). We stood in front of the sink and I turned on the water and just started splashing my hands in the water, all the time singing together and smiling.

“Pretty soon, his hands are in the water, too, and we’re soaping them up, laughing – and singing. Next, we washed his arms, slipped off his shirt and washed his torso.

“We got through an entire sink-and-washcloth bath just by singing and playing in the water together.”

It was a beautiful, relaxing and enjoyable event for the caregiver and the client, rather than a frightening time for both.

Music has some wonderful qualities. According to the article, people respond to music even when all other forms of communication no longer work. “Music, unlike language, is not seated in a specific area of the brain but processed across many parts. ‘You can’t rub out music unless the brain is completely gone.’”

If you can’t carry a tune, there’s good news for you, too. People with memory loss don’t seem to be picky: just start the music and let the caregiving – and relationship nurturing – begin.

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