My mom spent time on an Alzheimer’s unit near the end of her life. Not because she had dementia of any kind, but because she needed the constant care.
When I would visit my mom in the nursing home, I would talk to the patients with dementia and try to engage them in activities. Often, I asked my mom to sing with me while I played the piano for the patients. The facility had a music book filled with old 1940s songs and a hymn book.
What was remarkable was that the Alzheimer patients, who couldn’t remember who I was from time to time, would join mom and me in singing the words to many old songs. And they remembered many of the words. After we sang, they seemed to converse better.
What I didn’t know at the time was what was discovered in a November 2013 study in The Journal of Neurolinguistics. In the study, researchers had Alzheimer's patients choose familiar music. When they listened to familiar music for two minutes and then were asked to do a conversational memory task, they did better than a group who sat in silence and then did the task. The familiar music enhanced the grammar, meaningful words and content of what was spoken. Music improved their conversational skills.
Alzheimer's patients experience a decline in autobiographical memory that affects their sense of identity. It's thought that familiar music may help with recalling of deep memories and strengthen the patient’s sense of identity.
Little did Mom and I know that our enjoyment of music and playing the old tunes could actually be helping in other ways. We saw the smiles, heard the joyful singing and noticed they remembered the words, but we didn’t know that music could do even more.
We especially noticed the change in their faces when we sang about heaven, eternity and seeing Jesus. Their countenance changed. Smiles filled the room. For a moment, we were all a great choir, joining those around the throne, worshipping our Lord. The spiritual man was connecting to heaven no matter what the brain was doing.
The music eventually stopped. People soon forgot I was even there playing for them. But in those moments when we worshipped the Lord, we were all communicating in a way we all understood.