For the elderly, music is a gateway to memory, not just entertainment

     (Diana Allen/for NewsWorks)

    (Diana Allen/for NewsWorks)

    A few months ago, I was approached to perform vocal concerts for retirement homes around Montgomery County. Each time I visit a new facility, music opens a door for the residents to an awareness of the present and musical memories of the past.

    There was a time when, like many people, I didn’t expect to find myself at a retirement facility until my future children put me there.

    A few months ago, when I was approached to perform vocal concerts for homes around Montgomery County, I agreed apprehensively. I associated elder care with memories of my grandparents in Alzheimer’s units — memories that felt far too fresh.

    Still, I put together a 20-song repertoire: Rodgers and Hammerstein, Frank Sinatra, the Andrews Sisters. I chose songs I hoped would spark a connection in the residents’ minds, like how my Pop Pop’s expression would remain empty, but his fingers would tap in perfect unison to The Beatles.

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    “I think that might be too melancholy,” my mother said, as I packed sheet music for “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

    With my emotions carefully tucked away, I prepared myself to tackle my first concert as the business venture I wished to see it as. Instead, the room full of strangers effortlessly broke down my barriers when their choir of voices joined me in song.

    Since then, I’ve never sung Judy Garland on my own.

    I stay for a while after each concert to hear the residents’ stories. Although they sometimes lack clarity, the stories are still brimming with life. The residents talk about their favorite operas, offer me comical stage name suggestions, and reminisce about a song that reminds them of a loved one who is now very far away. One day, a resident who studied in Salzburg, Austria, in her youth, reciprocated with the gift of a piano recital.

    Every time I go to a new facility, music opens a door for the residents to gain awareness of the present even if the song stirs a musical memory of the past.

    “Many of our residents may not remember an activity they participated in last week, but they’ll remember that song they first danced with their husband or wife to,” said Stephanie Kolbes, activities director at Willowbrooke Court Retirement Home in Southampton, Pennsylvania.

    Kolbes said residents who act aggressively or who struggle with dementia often find solace during musical performances. Each caretaker I have met over the past few months stresses how the universality of music permits these relationships to strengthen.

    Meaghan Beck is a music therapist working in hospice care. Her occupation addresses the physiological, emotional, social, and spiritual needs of her geriatric patients. She said creating and listening to music offers her patients a portal into expression that often escapes them. In these homes, music is not just entertainment; it is a form of caregiving.

    Beck’s favorite story about a resident felt all too familiar to me. While singing, her patient suddenly paused — smiling for the first time as she recalled a memory about her children.

    “I will never forget her response,” Beck said. “She said, ‘I feel warm all over, and I can’t stop smiling.'”

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