Friday, July 2, 2010

Music and Alzheimer's Disease

In this latest post by an AFA Teens Advisory Board Member, read what Robbie Hynes thinks are the benefits of music therapy for people with Alzheimer's disease and why it's important for teens to form intergenerational connections.

Like many other teens, Alzheimer’s disease has had a significant impact on my life. My grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease seven years ago, and I have witnessed first-hand the effects that this disease has on families. When I was in elementary school I looked forward to visits from my grandfather a few times a year. In recent years, however, I have only been able to see him a handful of times. When I speak with him on the phone I sometimes feel as if I’m not even speaking with my grandfather anymore. It is a struggle to maintain a conversation since he will address me by different names, and I can sense the increasing difficulty he has putting cogent thoughts together. I find myself having to remind him about my life when I talk to him in order to carry on the conversation, and this has made me very sad. When I first became aware of his condition, I did not understand how over the span of a few years, my grandfather, who has known me my entire life, could forget almost everything about me.

Then, a few years ago, when my older sister was doing research on the positive impact live music might have on those living with Alzheimer’s disease she introduced me to AFA Teens. My family was very excited when we found this organization and wanted to find a way in which we could help contribute to its cause. AFA Teens is an organization that by virtue of its very existence provides a “home base” for families and specifically young members of those families who have a relative with Alzheimer’s disease. One avenue we have used to attempt to “connect” with individuals with the disease is tied directly to one of my family’s major interests: music. Music has played an important role in all of our lives, and we were fortunate to find a way in which we could help raise awareness for Alzheimer’s disease and have a fun time doing it. My siblings and I first formed a quartet and later a quintet that consists of two violas, two violins and a cello. We began to contact local nursing homes and assisted living centers and volunteered to come and play our music for their residents. Many of the residents at these facilities are affected by Alzheimer’s disease, and our goal was to observe how they would react to the music. It was astonishing to realize how much of an impact our music actually had on many of these people. We were even more surprised at how thankful the residents and staff were that we took the time to visit.

Our first concert was at a nursing home in our town, and we had put together a program of five songs to play. As we unpacked our instruments and prepared for the performance, the crowd of elderly people was quite loud and talkative. I distinctly remember a person in the audience shouting at me to ask when we were going to start. Prior to the concert, the head of the nursing home had informed us that many of the residents had Alzheimer’s disease and that they could be loud and restless. So, we were not entirely surprised by the initial reaction when we first arrived. Then, we introduced ourselves and began to play our first song. As we began to play, a silence fell over the crowd; all you could hear was the ringing sound of string instruments. This caught me entirely off guard, and it was clear to me that our music was acting as a sort of therapy for the residents. I was very excited by this because now we were not only doing something we enjoyed to help raise awareness for Alzheimer’s disease, but our music was acting as a way to soothe people affected by the disease.

Just a couple of months ago I saw my grandfather for the first time in a few years, and he insisted that I play my music for him. I was very curious to see if he would react just like the people at the nursing homes have—and he did. As I played, I sporadically glanced over at him to see him sitting there mesmerized by the music. It was a very rare occasion to see my grandfather able to sit down and concentrate on one thing for more than a few minutes, and I felt very proud of myself that I was able to provide a temporary respite from the disease for those 10 minutes during which I played that day.

But there is more work that can be done to make lives better for both people with Alzheimer’s disease and their families. Even though all of us do not play music, perhaps there are other modes of interaction that can help people in assisted living facilities. . Just as one of our family’s concerts breaks the monotony of the day-to-day routine, perhaps getting more young people involved in visiting these centers might also be beneficial. In a day and age when everyone’s schedule seems stretched to the max, maybe it is time for teens to step back and assess what they can do, what they can personally do, to help make things better.

AFA Teens has created a forum for young people to exchange experiences and possible solutions for the myriad problems facing families dealing with Alzheimer’s disease. However, taking full advantage of that forum requires all of us to take the first step, take the initiative, and make an effort to bring what can be a positive vision to life. Our older population will continue to grow over the coming years; so will the number of individuals (and families) coming to terms with Alzheimer’s disease. Hopefully the number of teens willing to step up and become involved will grow as well.