When I would visit my mom in the nursing home, I would visit the Alzheimer’s unit and ask my mom to come sing with me while I played the piano for the patients. What was remarkable was that the Alzheimer patients, who couldn’t remember who I was from time to time, would join mom and me in singing the words to many old songs. And after we sang, they seemed to converse better.
What I didn’t know at the time was what was discovered in a November 2013 study in the Journal of Neurolinguistics. In the study, researchers had Alzheimer patients choose familiar music . When they listened to familiar music for two minutes and then were asked to do a conversational memory task, they did better than a group who sat in silence and then did the task. The familiar music enhanced the grammar, meaningful words and content of what was spoken. Music improved their conversational skills.
Alzheimer patients experience a decline in autobiographical memory that affects their sense of identity. The thinking is that familiar music may help with recall of deep memories and strengthen the patient’s sense of identity.
Little did mom and I know that our enjoyment of music and playing the old tunes could actually be helping in other ways. We saw the smiles, we heard the joyful singing, we noticed they remembered the words, but we didn’t know that music could do even more.