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  • Writer's pictureKarla Wilson

How sweet the sound

"She woke me up every morning with 'Kiss an Angel Good Mornin,' and when she was cleaning, Elvis was playing.” Debbi knew her mother’s musical preferences well, and was eager to share them with me. We conversed together in Debbi’s home, where she was the primary caregiver for her mother, Hazel, diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease at the age of 57. Given that this was our first meeting, insight into the music Hazel found meaningful in her life was especially helpful. Now ten years into Hazel’s journey with Alzheimer’s, 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, my portable keyboard in front of me and sang "Kiss an Angel Good Mornin.’” Debbi sang along. In fact, she consistently took part in our sessions, as did one or both of her children. Debbi 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 we were together. On this occasion, Hazel sat in her wheelchair, seemingly immersed in the music; her upper body gently rocking back and forth rhythmically.

During our third visit, Debbi 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, Debbi was astonished. The music was speaking to Hazel in ways nothing else had for quite some time. And it continued to do so in our coming visits.

Since Hazel loved church hymns, I sang "Amazing Grace" during one of our visits. Debbi noticed her mother's mouth moving, as if trying to form the words. I encouraged Hazel in this, as did Debbi. At the conclusion of the song, Hazel found her voice and softly spoke, "that was very good." Debbi’s eyes grew wide, her head shaking from side to side, in awe of hearing the sweet sound of her mother's voice. Not only was Hazel speaking, but she was revealing the sense of connection she experienced upon hearing this hymn.

In yet 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 her mother would harmonize together as they sang favorite songs. I encouraged her to sing with us, and in doing so, she created beautiful harmonies. Hazel's eye contact with me was particularly intent during this session. At one point she reached out to touch my keyboard: an uncharacteristic and remarkable instance where Hazel actually connected physically with something outside of her “inner world.” Debbi asked her mother if she was enjoying the music, to which Hazel replied "yes." As thrilled as Debbi was by her mother's verbal response, by the conclusion of our session she was moved to tears. When I said, "goodbye" to Hazel, she reached out to hug me and to kiss my cheek. This beautiful moment left an indelible mark in my memory.

It may seem to some that music is simply a nice way to "entertain" someone living with dementia. Debbi believed it was much more, however, and often 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. In this interview, Debbi expressed that the music's positive therapeutic effects were not limited to Hazel, nor to the time of the visit itself. She described feeling 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.

Photo, names and events described in this blog post are used with the permission of Debbi Stevens Elrod


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