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Music soothes the souls of those suffering from Alzheimer’s

I am a singer. I process the world through my ears and my voice. In early October, I went to Virginia to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday. Mom has advanced Alzheimer’s. When I visit, I sing to her – lullabies, folk songs, spirituals and old hymns. Once again, I am reminded of this profound fact: Sound creates healing, connection and community.

The last night of my visit, Mom and I sat in the quiet town center of her residence, rocking in rhythm together. I sang “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Her face lit up, and she began moving her lips to the words. I sang “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and Mom spontaneously began tapping her knees with her hands in perfect time with the beat. She “sang” with me, sounds and notes intelligible to her, in time with me, anchoring her to the memory of a song from her past and sharing that memory with another person – me – in the present.

What is heartwarming and astonishing is that Mom has almost no language left. At 80, her twinkling, sassy face is mostly vacant. She doesn’t know me. For a while, she knew my voice. Now the songs connect and comfort us – face-to-face, word-by-word, together in the present moment.

When I sing for the residents, I sing songs from their childhood and early adulthood – “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” “You are My Sunshine,” “My Wild Irish Rose,” “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” Two dozen gray-haired folks cluster around the piano, most in wheelchairs. It’s mid-afternoon. My mother and her neighbors look sleepy, but as soon as I open my mouth, they lift their heads and start to sing. Some sing loudly. Some just move their lips. Some tap their fingers or feet. Many know the words, these sweet parents who don’t know the names of their own children.

Esther sang in a church choir all her life. When I sing “Amazing Grace,” she stands up with me, holds my hand, watches my lips and sings every verse. Her face is alight with joy.

After nearly two hours of music, a well-coifed, white-haired woman came up to me and said, “I hope you come back again soon.” I noticed her singing every song. I asked her what her name was. She answered with a smile, “Doris Duvall. Isn’t that a lovely name?” I agreed it was.

Every time I visit and sing, I am struck by how much music helps people who are memory-impaired come alive. Their eyes light up. They smile. They bob their heads with the beat. As we sing together, we become a connected community. The present moment is sweet and healing for all of us.

This connection happens at a physical level that is both tangible and energetic. Everything in the universe is composed of vibrating parts, from each cell in our bodies to the stars in the furthest galaxy. Sound is audible vibration. When we sing or listen to music, all of our body’s vibrations realign harmonically with the external musical rhythms.

There is a growing body of evidence from the fields of sound healing and music therapy that confirm what we know from experience.

Singing anchors us to the present moment. It oxygenates all our cells. When singing, we breathe deeper and slower, which relieves stress. Because there is more oxygen in the blood, the heart doesn’t have to work as hard. Blood pressure goes down. Endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, are released, which also make us happy. Music can be used for physical and emotional healing, pain management, easing life’s transitions including death, and building community.

Alzheimer’s is a heart-breaking disease, but when we sing together there are smiles, and there is laughter, swaying, tapping, dancing and rocking in wheelchairs. For that period of time, we are comforted, energized, connected and happy – a community of singing souls. When I visit my mother, I bring her songs.

(Peggo Horstmann Hodes is a singer, performer, voice teacher and conductor of Songweavers, a women’s a cappella chorus at Concord Community Music School. Read more at peggohodes.com/blog.)

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