Music for Patients with Advanced Dementia and Alzheimer’s

Judith-Kate Friedman with elders from the Jewish Home in San Francisco
Photo by Alain McLaughlin

Music can also engage people near the end of life, who are afflicted with Alzheimer’s or advanced dementia. Musician and former Bay Area resident Judith Kate Friedman is the founder of Songwriting Works based in Port Townsend, Washington, a nonprofit that uses songwriting to connect with elders in assisted living facilities. Friedman says many of the patients with advanced dementia she’s worked with can still remember and respond to music, even if their memories are severely impaired. “Sometimes people will remember the songs when you come back, even many months later,” she said, “It is mysterious.”

When she was writing songs with elders at the Jewish Home in San Francisco over ten years ago, Friedman remembers an elderly woman who had co-written several songs. The woman had a stroke and when Friedman visited her, she was in a coma. Friedman said, “What could it hurt? I’m going to sing her songs back to her. And every so often, it looked like her lips were mouthing the words.” Friedman added, “Researchers have said it looks like the music gets through to people, even if they can’t consciously interact.”

Dr. Oliver Sacks, the famed neurologist, theorized that music is hardwired into our brains in a way that defies easy explanation. Even when their brains are ravaged by Alzheimer’s, dementia, and severe memory loss, many of Sacks’ patients could still sing songs from childhood. A similar theory, posited by Daniel J. Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music, is that music taps into a part of the brain that doesn’t require interpretation to communicate as words do, and that allows a direct connection to feelings. In his book Musicophilia, Sacks argued that “we humans are a musical species no less than a linguistic one.”7 Friedman agrees with Sacks. “I’ve been with people in the last day of their life, where just the touch of the hand—there’s a pulse there, there’s still a connection there,” said Friedman, “The ancient part of the life force is still in us. And it has a music to it.” She added, “The earliest instruments of humanity are the drum and the voice. And the drum is the heartbeat and that’s where it started. And maybe toward the end of life, it goes back to that simplicity.”

A Gentle Landing

Thad Povey in the Zen Hospice patio

Back at Zen Hospice, it’s time for Thad Povey to pack up his guitar and leave. Thad will return the following week to play some more for Bruce Davis. Given the rapid progression of his cancer, Bruce most likely has one or two months left to live. As Bruce’s life winds down, so will the music. Thad expects the songs he’ll play in the coming weeks will be quieter, maybe more Beatles, and more atmospheric—music that will allow Bruce to hoist anchor, set sail, and gently move on.

JoAnn Mar’s report was produced with the support of a journalism fellowship from New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America, and AARP.

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