By Larry Dawalt, M. Div., BCC, Senior Director of Spiritual & Grief Care Services Watching the rebroadcast of ‘One Last Time - An Evening with Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga’ two days after his death was a reminder of just how amazing it was that he could perform like he did, not only on the occasion of his 95th birthday, but with the significant progression of his dementia which had been first diagnosed in 2016. Having spent 30 years in end-of-life care, I have been given many opportunities to see the power of music awaken memories in dementia patients. And the story of Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga is a fresh reminder that music is a form of connection that families and caregivers can utilize to bring joy in the midst of progressive sadness.
Describing how Tony could keep singing despite his disease, Lady Gaga told host Stephen Colbert during an appearance on The Late Show, “when jazz begins, this man lights up in a way that is such magic. It just reminded me that anybody that has a family member or somebody that they love that is suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia, music is magic. Lady Gaga saw the magic vividly during the taping of the show. After Tony had performed a couple of songs, she made her entrance by saying ‘Hey Tony.’ His eyes lit up and he loudly said “LADY GAGA!” “For the first couple of weeks that I saw Tony (after) COVID, he called me sweetheart,” she told Anderson Cooper in a 60 Minutes interview. “When I walked out on that stage and he said my name, it was very special. That’s the first time that Tony said my name in a long time.” So, how does it work? Why can people remember music when they seemingly can remember little else? Why did Tony recognize her? Perhaps it was because he had been singing before she came out. A study published in The Gerontologist found that ‘singing and music listening improved mood, orientation and episodic memory as well as attention, executive function and general cognition.’ Or maybe it was because, according to an article in the scientific journal ‘Dementia & Neuropsychologia,’ music is embedded deep within. “Musical memory may be partially preserved in people with Alzheimer’s disease since musical memory involves anatomical brain networks.” The Alzheimer’s Organization website, alz.org, states that “even in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, a person may be able to tap a beat or sing lyrics to a song from childhood. Music provides a way to connect, even after verbal connection has become difficult.” I saw this vividly many years ago as my Uncle Bill and I visited my grandmother in a nursing home just a few weeks before she died. She didn’t know where she was, who I was, or who my uncle was, but on that early December night, she could utter all five verses of the Christmas carol ‘Joy to the World’ as I sang it to her. If you have a family member going through Alzheimer’s or dementia, give it a try. Hymns from early church days are popular for those who grew up in the Christian faith. Songs taught in elementary school or patriotic songs are usually easily recalled. But songs from records and the radio may also be embedded in the minds of loved ones. Try to remember what they played when they were younger, or do a search of what was, had been or was about to be popular when they were 20 years old. Healthcare workers can utilize music, whether they sing or not. Music can be played from a tablet or cell phone to create the opportunity for connection. This sometimes brings memorable moments, not only in the present moment for the patient, but in unforgettable memories for their loved ones. Watching Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga singing together made it easy to see that music can be a powerful bridge. Give it a try and see if it brings some magical moments for you and yours.
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