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Sharing magical momments of music

July 2009

Music is a unique language, a special form of communication. We appreciate music even when we don’t understand it. Music is a language of the heart; it reaches us in an extraordinary way, unlike other forms of communication.

The first loss we associate with Alzheimer’s Disease is memory loss. Gradually many patients lose the ability to communicate with words. However, it is not unusual to watch people with significant memory loss sing the words to a song familiar to them from their past.

Many residences catering to individuals with dementia use music therapy as a wonderful resource to calm agitated patients.

Particular types of music bring different emotional reactions from each individual. Memories we associate with old familiar songs may take us back to happy, exciting or perhaps sadder times. This is no different for people with dementia. Music therapy enhances their lives.

A simple way to share time with your loved one is to sing old and familiar songs with them. No one will care whether you can carry a tune. It is not unusual to see a group of cognitively impaired people singing the words of old time songs,words lost to their every day speech. Such songs as You Are My Sunshine, or My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean are familiar tunes heard in recreational centres for people with Alzheimer’s. I remember watching my mother singing Yiddish songs to her sibling, songs that they had sung in their childhood. It was easy to spot the sparkle of recognition in the eyes of her loved one.

Music brings people together and is a wonderful activity to share with someone who no longer communicates easily with words. Try singing with your loved one; buy some CDs with music from the olden days; have music playing in the background as a calming comfort to someone living with confusion.

Bonnie Sandler is a private social worker, specializing in professional services for seniors. If you have questions or comments send them to

Editor's Note

After learning that Bonnie was writing about the effects of music on persons living with memory loss, I wanted to include my stor y about my mother’s 85th birthday and the magic the music created that day.

I had decided to celebrate my mother’s birthday at her small senior residence with the friends with whom she now shares her days. I arrived early with the cake and candles and all the birthday trimmings, including her favourite cocktail appetizers from Snowdon Deli.

After singing Happy Birthday, we cut the cake and continued to sing. The eight residents sang under the leadership of one lady who has a wonderful voice and remembered all the words to my mother’s favourites, in particular Paul Anka and Nat King Cole. I started singing an old Yiddish favourite, Oifen Pripichick, which I had learned from my mother. Her first language was Yiddish. She hummed along, but didn’t seem to remember the words.

One lady, named Goldie, who till that moment had never had a conversation with me, began to sing the words with me as clear as a nightingale. She knew every last one and as soon as we finished, she asked to sing Oifen Pripichick, as if we hadn’t just sung it. The other ladies tried to join in, a feat for them, since none speak Yiddish or knew the song. Goldie just wanted to sing it again and again and soon my mother was remembering the words and the three of us were a choir.

This is how I will always remember Goldie. She died last month and will be dearly missed by all those at the residence who knew and loved her.

— Barbara Moser



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