• Karla Wilson

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound

"She woke me up every morning with 'Kiss an Angel.' And when she was cleaning, Elvis was playing," Debbie explained. Her mother, Hazel, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease at the age of 57. When I began providing music therapy, 10 years later, Debbie described her mother this way: "She still knows us, (though) she may not call us by name. Typically, she no longer talks." And with that, we began our first session, I sat next to Hazel, with my portable keyboard in front of me and sang "Kiss an Angel Good Mornin." Debbie sang along. In fact, she consistently took part in our sessions, as did one or both of her children.

Debbie often requested songs that held special meaning or memory for her mother, or that she remembered hearing in her home growing up, so that I could include them when I visited. Hazel seemed to be immersed in the music I shared with her, her upper body gently rocking back and forth, as she sat in her wheelchair, marking time with the music. At our third visit, Debbie expressed her amazement over the level of eye contact Hazel made with me and her overall interaction, reminding me that this simply wasn't the case with other people. When Hazel reached out to touch me, Debbie was astonished. The music was speaking to Hazel in ways Debbie hadn't seen her respond to anything else, for quite some time. And it continued to do so.

Having been informed by Debbie that Hazel loved church hymns, I sang "Amazing Grace" during one of our sessions. Debbie noticed her mother's mouth moving as if trying to form the words. I encouraged Hazel, as did Debbie. At the conclusion of the song, Hazel found her voice and softly spoke, "that was very good." Debbie's eyes grew wide, and she shook her head from side to side, in awe of hearing her mother's voice. Not only was she speaking, but she was revealing a special connection she felt with this music.

In another session, Hazel's sister joined in, excited to witness Hazel's response to the music for herself. She shared memories of times when she and Hazel would harmonize together as they sang favorite songs. I encouraged her to sing with us, and in doing so created the most beautiful harmonies. On this particular day, Hazel's eye contact with me was particularly intent. At one point she reached out to touch my keyboard, an uncharacteristic and remarkable instance of Hazel connecting in a physical way with something outside of her inner world. Debbie asked her mother if she was enjoying the music, to which Hazel replied "yes." As pleased as Debbie was by her mother's verbal response, by the conclusion of our sessions, she was moved to tears. For, when I said, "goodbye" to Hazel, she reached out to hug me and to kiss my cheek. This is a moment I have never forgotten.

It may seem to an onlooker that music is simply a nice way to "entertain" someone living with dementia. Debbie believed it was much more, however, and sought to express the impact of our music therapy sessions upon her beloved mother. On one occasion she did so in the context of an interview for a local newspaper. Debbie shared that the music's positive therapeutic effects were not limited to Hazel, nor to the time of the session. She expressed that her whole family felt uplifted by these experiences, even after I'd gone. As the caregiver for her mother for many years, having experienced the exhaustion and emotional drain of this role, opportunities to feel uplifted were both welcome and treasured.

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