A few years ago as my mother was sliding slowly but surely into her own mind’s dark spaces; engaging her become more and more difficult.
She’d more or less stopped talking in sentences and for periods of time barely spoke more than two or three connected words. She’d begun to eat less at most meals, and had stopped using utensils. When she fed herself at all, it was using her fingers.
Sleep was more often than not the activity of the day.
A few of my friends in the field of geriatrics suggested I play music for my mother. Figuring I had nothing to lose by trying, I bought a small CD player with a good quality headset. I remembered that she really used to like the Viennese waltzes and that she also liked the 1920s and 1930s musicals, which we used to play on an old ’78 record player when I was young.
Music made her day
The first time I showed her what I bought she shook her head, almost violently. So with great caution and very slowly and methodically, I organized to play one of the CDs. I first put the headset on my ears to show her how it worked and that it was okay.
Then I applied the headset to her ears and hit the play button for the waltz CD. For about two minutes there was absolutely no reaction whatsoever. And then there was the hint of a little smile. A moment or two later, my mother’s eyes, which had been almost wildly open, slowly receded almost entirely from view as her eyelids became small slits.
She liked the music. She liked listening to the music.
What I discovered from a number of other like-minded children of aging parents at her nursing home was that indeed, soothing, known and liked music was calming and welcomed.
And the more I asked around, the more I found that the right kinds of music seemed to be just about as good as some of the prescription mood management drugs were and with a lot less potential negative interactions with yet other drugs.
Even musicals and music shows on the communal television set seemed to make my mother more engaged.
Miss the music
One of the part time helpers I’d retained to spend time with my mother on weekends decided my mother actually didn’t really want to listen to music. It never registered on me until weeks later that when I’d go visit her on weekends she seemed more withdrawn and even more agitated.
I was baffled until one Saturday it dawned on me that there was no music. I asked the helper where the music was. She said my mother didn’t need it, that it made no difference. So I found the CD player, flipped in a CD, put the headset on my mother’s ears and upped the volume a bit. She liked the music.
That’s when I suggested to the helper that if she failed to ensure my mother had her music at least a couple of hours a day, she’d be looking for another job.
Diversions, distractions, pacifiers
The past years, I’ve spoken with many personal support workers, health care professionals and families. I’ve read reports and medical journal articles.
All suggest that music, pets, children, plants – whatever the diversion, distraction, pacifier might be – seem to help refocus the elderly, especially those with some form of dementia, to some kind of better, gentler, nicer personal place.
I suppose there are no guarantees, but there’s nothing to lose by trying the right kind of music or other mental pacifiers with your aging loved ones. Just remember, the first time may not work; it may take a few efforts before there is a benefit.