Alzheimer’s: Making memories through music


RALEIGH, N.C. — Pre-Alzheimer’s I would never have called my mother a music lover in particular. She enjoyed the choir at church and concerts when I sang. Classic country on 8-track cassette tapes was the soundtrack of my childhood. But after dementia struck, music became a main source of solace for Mom.

Multiple experts share the benefits of using music with people with dementia. The part of the brain where music lives is miraculously untouched as the disease ravages the rest. Early in Mom’s journey my brother, Dad and I attended a workshop in Burlington where Teepa Snow, a gifted dementia care and education specialist, talked about the topic, which piqued my interest. I had no idea at the time that music would become a stalwart through this journey.

While Mom was still at home, Dad made playlists of her favorites that he would play on a loop. That’s how I introduced my daughter to artists like the “original” Taylor Swift, Kitty Wells. During the holidays when we would visit, my daughter, Mom and I would sing along to playlists of classic Christmas carols Alicia had put together on her phone.

My daughter taught self to play ukulele during lockdown, as we moved Mom into memory care. When the facility eventually opened for visitors, Alicia would take her ukulele and we would sing a few oldies together in Mom’s room. My teenage daughter was a veritable rockstar when she walked in with case slung over her shoulder, with residents flocking around her, asking her to play.

We went to Family Nights where duos would perform tunes as we ate ice cream. Mom always wanted to be on the front row and sang every word to every song. The staff began calling her the “human jukebox,” tons of lyrics pouring out of her on everything from the Statler Brothers to the Duprees.

June 2021: Music has the power to connect:  Andrea's daughter, Alicia, plays and sings for her Nana in memory care.

Now that Mom is more advanced memory care, the most incredible thing to watch is the music therapist, a lone woman who shows up with her guitar and therapy dog. If you want to see magic happen, watch a music therapist with residents in a memory care. The interaction she gets from residents who barely speak is breathtaking.

One afternoon when Alicia and I visited, Mom was very sleepy, head flopped over as she sat in her wheelchair on the patio with other residents. We decided to play and sing a few songs anyway. Mom went from a seeming dead sleep to singing every word to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” eyes still closed, as her granddaughter played and sang.

One Sunday mid-morning we found Mom in her wheelchair, at a table with her best friend, another resident we love, as a staff member worked to set up lunch. Alicia took out her ukulele, and we all sang together. “You Are My Sunshine” struck home with them, and we ended up singing it multiple times: me, Alicia, Mom, her friend, the friend’s sitter and the staff member as she worked. It was a simple but glorious visit.

Those will forever go down as my favorite memories of my life: sitting and singing, me, Mom and my daughter together. Our signature song has become Elvis’ “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You.”

I have always loved to sing, even creating an album of songs for Mom as a labor of love shortly after she was diagnosed. She now listens to that CD every day, and it is one of the main things most likely to calm her when she gets agitated.

I’m so grateful something I’ve always loved so much has become so pivotal in connecting us through this difficult journey.

July 2021: Music has the power to connect:  Andrea’s daughter, Alicia, plays and sings for her Nana in memory care.

Helpful Resources:

Andrea Osborne is Capitol Broadcasting Company’s director of content. She has daughter in high school and a mother with Alzheimer’s and is a passionate advocate for both. She will be sharing her family’s journey here on WRAL’s family section.

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