Getting Old With a Sense of Humor
This past week has been a little brutal on my ego. My fictitious self (the me I hold in high regard) has seen its reflection in various external realities and has taken a mortal blow.
At least I hope it has.
You see, I’ve had to acknowledge all in one breath that I’m not as clever as I thought I was; I’m not all that kind or thoughtful of others; my conversation skills have dulled; and my hair isn’t really red (all this self-revelation is partly due to reading Crazy Love—a book that spoons out truth about the self in a cod-liver-oil kind of way: nasty; painful; healing).
I’ve been thinking a lot about my hair in particular, perhaps as a metaphor for all the other traits I have to face up to in myself. My hair—which appears rich and red and full to others—is actually flimsy and almost entirely white. If you look close enough and run your fingers through the root system, the truth is quite apparent: I’m somewhere between grizzly gray and snow white. And as metaphor, I’m thinking it’s time to go white once and for all. It’s time to stop covering up the truth.
Just one thing holds me back: the stigma of white. No, not that elegant, brilliant white, but the mousy salt-and-pepper white. It’s terrifyingly old. I know the difference it would make at the supermarket, at the realtor’s office, at a job interview. I’m young; I should not have to place myself in the old category just yet. Lushious red gives you youth and authority. Mousy gray, and it’s an uphill battle to convince others you can still think. It’s ridiculous that pigment can make the world go ’round, but there you have it.
I know you’re wondering why I’m talking about hair in a blog about dementia, but you’ve probably sensed the connection. Aging has enormous stigma in our culture, and everything in us resists revealing anything that might indicate we are aging. Particularly for those of us who are aging prematurely.
My struggle with hair has atuned me to the struggle in the early-onset Alzheimer’s community. I follow a group on Facebook called Memory People comprised of people of all ages who have been diagnosed with some kind of dementia, their caregivers, and other supporting cast. Some members are open about their dignoses and are brave enough to face public scrutiny; others accept their diagnoses but keep it somewhat private; and still others straddle the cover-up fence: should they reveal something that isn’t fully blown yet but could have as devastating results as if it was? All of them long to live truthfully, but all also know the stigma of dementia and the costs incurred in making their mental status known. As with pigment, we are valued for our synaptic connections. Why would anyone want to expose their deficits and risk rejection?
It makes my stomach turn. What kind of society have we become? When are we going to change the way we value each other? When are we going to free ourselves from the layers of untruth that we spend a lifetime building up? When are we going to trade all our lies in for Truth and finally be set free?
I saw an old friend yesterday and we caught each other up on our families. I told him I recently lost my brother-in-law to brain cancer. He said he was about to lose his sister to the same. Then he shared how his sister—who has a month or two left to live and is tired as can be—blurted out a couple days ago that “There are just so many fun things left to do.” No self-pity; no giving up despite the shortness of time. Her mind is winning over her dying brain.
I am deeply humbled by this woman’s attitude. I want to think like her—to take what’s left in the glass and drink it! Yet here I am with probably years left to live, claiming to be getting the upper hand on this Alzheimer’s caregiving business, but feeling devoid of creative ideas for living, for laughing, for loving.
I need help making a list. I have to have a bunch of small stuff, because the big stuff like going to a play or out to dinner or hang gliding don’t work with both parents. I just want some ideas for bringing laughter into our home.
To start, here are some little things that make Mom laugh:
Dancing for her with a feather boa.
Episodes of “I Love Lucy.”
Singing raucous songs loudly.
Pretending to eat her up.
Laughing babies (like this youtube one):
Here are some things that make Dad laugh:
Pretending to eat him up.
Episodes of The Colbert Report.
Mom when she’s in a funny mood.
And here are some new things I’m going to try:
Wear a fake mustache to the dinner table.
Spray whipped cream on Dad’s nose.
Put a fake snake or tarantula in the bathroom before Dad goes in.
Find a DVD of Victor Borge (like this youtube):
I’d love to hear your ideas, and I’ll leave you with this fun project: make a muppet like the one in the introductory picture above to add some fun to your Alzheimer’s caregiving.
Wait, here’s another idea: make these funky glasses. They crack everybody up!
The following describes the knowledge gained by Sharlene in the course of caring for both her parents with Alzheimer’s. It is not necessarily a reflection of my views, but I thought it good to publish the research of someone who has an insider’s view of Alzheimer’s dementia.
Sharlene Spalding is a naturopathic consultant in the village of Casco, ME. She is a former primary caregiver for two parents with AD. She holds a master’s degree in natural wellness. Sharlene is an excellent resource in natural healing and a hound dog when it comes to research. Because of what she knows now, she is committed to a pharmaceutical-free home that revolves around organic foods and herbs. You can visit her website at The Village Naturopath.
So, the music itself was great. Plus, Greg was a gem of an entertainer, weaving funny little stories throughout his performance, making us laugh and shout out responses. Very audience-attentive.
Which brings me to the point of this post.
See, when Greg first came out on the stage, he sat in front of a rickety old pump organ that was set up next to his keyboard (just two of about sixty eight instruments he played that night). And he told us the story of how he went out to buy a computer that day and ended up buying this antique organ instead. A 1911 organ to be precise.
Now, the whole time he was relating his organ-acquisition saga, I was thinking of Mom, because this was the exact kind of organ that Mom played in church down in Brazil for many years. And I was picturing Sunday afternoons when Mom would fold up the organ (or have one of us kids do it), hoist it into the van and drive it to one of the favelas around town for a Bible club. I pictured snotty little kids running to the van, touching the organ as it was set up, and singing their lungs out at the sound of Mom’s squeaky playing.
At the end of his story, Greg paused, looked at the organ, and said, “I’ll have to name her.”
Well. It didn’t take two seconds for me to think of the perfect name for that organ. So I shouted out “Ruth!”
And it didn’t take Greg two seconds to feel it in his bones that the name fit. He chuckled, muttered something about my timid voice (I thought I’d shouted), and agreed that the organ should be named Ruth.
It made my day. Made my niece’s day, cuz now her Greg Laswell has an organ named after her grandmother (hmm. Is there any good way to reword that sentence?).
But this story means even more to me for the irony in it. You see, Greg sings a lot about trying to forget. Trying to forget a love. Trying to forget the pain of a lost love. And here he is now, lugging around a little pump organ whose namesake–Ruth–wants more than anything else in the world to remember. Too weird. One is cursed by memory, the other by the loss of it.
Anyway. I have to thank Greg for a fun night that will only grow in significance as I retell this story.
And you have to keep an eye out for Greg. In case, you know, he turns out to be somebody. Like Ruth.
Yesterday I asked my sister—who is visiting from abroad—what signs of Alzheimer’s she sees in herself. She rattled off some memory problems such as forgetting names of acquaintances or not being able to place someone’s face when out of context. Nothing particularly Alzheimersy, just decreased mental sharpness.
She then asked me if I was experiencing any unusual mental hyperabilities and went on to explain how she seems to have gained a fantastic ability to call up words she didn’t even know she knew.
Funny, I told her. I had this post saved as a draft when she asked me the question. The answer is yes, I’m experiencing this very same thing, and am curious to know if there is a name for it.
Is there such a thing as hyperphasia—the flip side of aphasia? The term hyperphasia exists, and it’s defined as an uncontrolled impulse to talk. But that’s not what I’m referring to. I’m referring to the mind’s sudden ability to pull up obscure words when common words won’t present themselves. Words so obscure that we had no idea we knew them.
I’m well acquainted with aphasia—the “tip of the tongue but it just won’t come” nature of language loss. I’m also familiar with another embarrassing result of gradual mental decline: the mind’s tendency to call up words similar in shape, but wholly different in meaning from the one the user wants. Try Googling “fairy schedule” next time you want to cross the Puget Sound to see what I mean.
But what is it called when the mind calls up unknown words that perfectly fit the context they were intended for? Does neurology study mental surfeits as well as deficits?
I told my sister that I’ve had arguments in my head over this new ability. One night, for example, I went to bed, and as I lay my head on the pillow a picture of our living room doorway came to mind, and with it the word “transom.” I immediately questioned myself:
“Transom? What’s that?”
“It’s the big piece that spans the top of the doorway, dummy.”
“How’d you know that?”
“I don’t know. I just know that it is.”
“You’re probably thinking of Hansom. And I think that’s a horse carriage, not a doorway.”
“No, I know hansom is a carriage. Transom is the door thingy.”
With that, I got out of bed and looked the word up in the dictionary: a horizontal crossbar in a window, over a door, or between a door and a window or fanlight above it
“OK, you were right.”
My sister laughed and said, yes, that’s exactly what goes through her brain.
So my question is, what is this newly acquired hyper-phasia called? And is it common to everyone as their minds begin to deteriorate?
After writing my last post regarding the stress of caregiving, I had to drive somewhere, and in the course of the short trip, I caught a clip of a Haydn symphony on the radio. I don’t know how, but there are sections in there that make me feel as though this exhausted, shriveling heart of mine is actually quite expansive and able not only to cope, but to bring beauty out of the brokenness around me. You know how sometimes you see a scene or a photograph that makes you certain that the universe is true and right and good? Well, music does that, but with thrice the emotion. Music can rewire a frazzled or finished outlook into one of hope. And hope can take you a looooooong way down a very dark road.
All to say that music—in addition to being a fantastic tool for treating Alzheimer's—is a very inexpensive way to get your groove back when you’re done in from caregiving. Or from living a regular life-is-pain-highness kind of life.
To prove this, I'm giving you a little tool in this post that some people may not know about. The tool is called Pandora—an internet service that lets you create your own radio station online.
The extra cool thing about this service is that you can create multiple radio stations, all with different moods—colored by different genres or artists—to suit your changing needs. Sometimes I don't even know what my need is or what it is that will trigger a brighter outlook, so having multiple "moods" to choose from is very useful.
Cutting to the chase, here are four stations I created to get you started. Click on any one of them and follow instructions to log into Pandora. From there, you can tweak the station by "adding variety" (a specific music piece or musician) to the station. You can also "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" any piece that you hear, and the station will remember to pick similar music or not to play that piece in the future. Talk about tailored just for you!
So here goes—four different flavors for your listening pleasure:
Jazz. You know, the good stuff with Stan Getz and Louis Armstrong and Bobby McFerrin and Michael Buble…
This is a fusion of old hymns and contemporary Christian pop. Nice, especially for Sunday mornings.
My personal favorite: spicy Latin mix. Makes you want to jiggle and dance and go crazy! A great stress-reliever.
Classical is music to transport the soul.
A couple more tips: if you want to play this music off your sound system without leaving the kitchen table, you can buy a $4 wireless FM transmitter and send the station to your main tuner. You can also "send the station" to the radio that sits on your mother's side table in the bedroom while you’re working on the laptop in the kitchen. Just a whole lot of things you can do with Pandora!
Do have fun, and come back and post a station of your own creation if you dare!
In my research on Alzheimer’s and glucose metabolism, I ran across a fascinating article about the brain’s default system–that part of the brain that is affected in Alzheimer’s Disease; that part of the brain that hogs glucose like no other part of the brain.
In The Secret Life of the Brain, Douglas Fox brings together research on the default network beginning with Dr. Sokoloff who, in his attempt to find out why the brain uses so much glucose (20% of the body’s supply), discovered that the brain uses as much energy while “at rest” as it does while performing tasks.
Later, a neuroscientist named Marcus Reichle discovered a kind of “brain within the brain” that works its butt off when it’s supposedly in “idle mode.”
Raichle and Shulman published a paper in 2001 suggesting that they had stumbled onto a previously unrecognised “default mode” – a sort of internal game of solitaire which the brain turns to when unoccupied and sets aside when called on to do something else. This brain activity occurred largely in a cluster of regions arching through the midline of the brain, from front to back, which Raichle and Shulman dubbed the default network (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 98, p 676).
It was found that some parts of this network devoured 30 per cent more calories, gram for gram, than nearly any other area of the brain. Since part of this default system is in constant communication with the hippocampus (which records every day memories), Reichler speculated that its function was to sort, evaluate, and categorize memories in such a way that would allow the brain to use the past as an “inner rehearsal” for considering future actions and choices.
Brilliant. Just when you think daydreaming is a waste of time, it turns out it’s crucial for living.
Raichle now believes that the default network is involved, selectively storing and updating memories based on their importance from a personal perspective – whether they’re good, threatening, emotionally painful, and so on. To prevent a backlog of unstored memories building up, the network returns to its duties whenever it can.
In support of this idea, Raichle points out that the default network constantly chatters with the hippocampus. It also devours huge amounts of glucose, way out of proportion to the amount of oxygen it uses. Raichle believes that rather than burning this extra glucose for energy it uses it as a raw material for making the amino acids and neurotransmitters it needs to build and maintain synapses, the very stuff of memory. “It’s in those connections where most of the cost of running the brain is,” says Raichle.
Reichler later attented a lecture by an Alzheimer’s specialist and was shown a map of beta amyloid plaques (those clumps found in Alzheimer’s autopsies) in the brain. The picture looked exactly like the default network!
Raichle, Greicius and Buckner have since found that the default network’s pattern of activity is disrupted in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. They have also begun to monitor default network activity in people with mild memory problems to see if they can learn to predict who will go on to develop Alzheimer’s. Half of people with memory problems go on to develop the disease, but which half? “Can we use what we’ve learned to provide insight into who’s at risk for Alzheimer’s?” says Buckner.
That got me thinking…
Maybe one reason we lose memories is that our lifestyle doesn’t allow for much rich idle time like when we would sit on the porch sipping sweet tea on a hot afternoon. So the default network can never do its work of sorting and categorizing memories, and consequently we lose them.
And if this is a problem with the present generation, how much moreso for the upcoming generation. We are consumed with having something to pay attention to all the time. Just look at TV screens these days: not only do you have the main screen, but there’s the pop-up ad for the “next show,” a caption for what’s going on on the screen, and a ticker at the bottom of the screen for what’s happening elsewhere.
Maybe part of the solution for AD is the “quiet space” to be incorporated in school, at work, and at home. Hmm, come to think of it, I offered this very solution in a comment to an article in Time Magazine back in 09 (Turn Off, Tune In, Log Out):
I predict that the twitterification of our society is going to lead to an exponential increase in early-onset Alzheimer’s. We’re increasing the rate of input to our brains and decreasing the time for processing information, and our brains are going to revolt. That, in turn, will lead to the next big industry: de-twitterification rooms where you can sit alone and unconnected, with nothing but a giant aquarium and a beanbag. -Marty
This weekend I picked up and devoured Dr. Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat—a fascinating collection of clinical tales of neurological aberrations accompanied by philosophical and social observations regarding the people affected by these aberrations.
One of the first things that hit me as I read these tales was remorse over my inadequate caregiving of Dad in the past three years. I mean, the very first case in the book reminded me very much of Dad—his inability to tell the difference between his foot and his shoe; to interpret a picture or the furniture layout of any room; to distinguish between his body and a chair across the room. But whereas Dr. Sacks’ response to these aberrations was fascination, interest, and kindness, mine was a struggle against exasperation, irritability, and impatience.
Why couldn’t I marvel at (instead shake my head at) Dad’s description of his back pain as an imaginary horizontal tube about a foot in front of his abdomen? Why did I only nod in shame when doctors asked, “Is your father’s mentation… always… this… shot?” instead of pushing the observation beyond the superficial to the interesting? If I’d only read this book or studied neurology before taking care of Dad! I feel like a parent looking back on her inadequate parenting skills and feeling remorse over the damage it may have caused.
Dr. Sacks laments the tendency of neurology to focus on “deficits,” leaving the soul out of the doctor’s concern. This echoed my own feelings expressed in the post Regarding Disabilities and Questionnaires. We are so concerned in medicine and social services to define what’s wrong with the patient that we miss seeing the desperate starvation in front of our eyes: the individual’s need for affirmation—for having someone notice what’s right with them. Thus, the simplest of all medicines or disability benefits is left completely out of the picture in professional delineation of care: making use of what’s left of the damaged self to make positive human connections.
From his chapter, “The President’s Speech,” I learned one way to use what’s left of Mom’s mind to connect more effectively with her. Like the patients in the aphasiac ward, Mom too has lost all language while retaining extraordinary function in the area of intonation, body language, inflection, and facial expression. I’ve always sensed that she could “read our body language.” Dr. Sacks’ confirmation of this ability has made me more aware of how I use those meta-verbal cues in communicating with Mom. The smile I get in response is more valuable than any drug-induced ability to tell what date it is.
One of the most fascinating passages in Dr. Sack’s book tells of a man with Tourett’s who, when given Haldol in the smallest of doses, ceased to exhibit the excesses of Tourett’s and became disastrously dulled—both physically and mentally—causing him as much distress as had his Tourett’s dysfunction. It took three months of counseling and “preparation for healing” before the man was again willing to try a tiny dose of Haldol. As Dr. Sacks put it, “The effects of Haldol here were miraculous—but only became so when a miracle was allowed.” Scandalous! Was Dr. Sacks milking the placebo effect for all its worth? I’ve always wondered why doctors don’t deliberately incorporate the placebo effect into the real medication to multiply its effect. Now I know: some do (what’s wrong with spending three months preparing a patient for healing?).
It’s easy to see why Dr. Sacks is considered an exentric. His methods go beyond the cut and dry. They touch the soul. I think I like this.
If you click on the picture at left, you'll hear the loveliest little story about a nursing home in Germany that decided to install a fake bus stop in front of their facility for patients to go to and "de-stress." Folks would go out to the bus stop thinking they'd get on a bus and go home. But after a few minutes of waiting, they'd forget why they were there and go back inside, no longer agitated and afraid.
So, if lying achieves a good end, is it OK?
Looking at it another way, is the aim of interaction to be correct or to be kind?
In the bus stop story, think about what it is the patient really wants when he waits for the bus. He wants home and family. But why? He wants these things because they mean acceptance and love.
So if the bus stop allows a patient to calm down enough for a staff member to have a soothing, friendly visit with them, is it not giving them what they were after in the first place? And is this not Truth?
This is the same rationale for communicating with Alzheimer's patients even when they are home with family. The point isn’t to constantly correct your loved one ("no, it’s not morning, it’s evening;" or, "no, my name isn’t Mary, it’s Marty"). We’re not here to elicit factual correctness from each other, but to honor each other as full-fledged beings created in the image of God—regardless to what extent we are broken.
And, no, I'm not a post-modernist saying there are no facts, or that facts are what we want them to be.
Just saying, facts aren't the point. Love is.
Yesterday I finished reading Still Alice. I think the title is meant to be a loaded question. Can I, after losing all memory of others and self, still be considered to be myself? Am I still “me” if I don’t have a clue what that me is or was?
The fictional book answers the question affirmatively.
I found myself examining my perceptions of Mom–who obviously no longer knows herself–and thinking the conclusion was absolutely true. I still recognize Mom in this shell of a person. She still has the same mannerisms, exudes the same kind affection, displays the same funny reactions. She’s still Mom down to the core.
But not so much with Dad–a victim of Parkinson’s. It seems I recognize him less and less. But then, I suppose I’m holding a higher standard of “self” to Dad, giving that I’m assuming he’s more “there” than mom. If I were to strip him down to mannerisms alone, I would probably find him to be his old self too. It’s a tricky question.
At the very end of the novel, Alice has a moment of lucidy and says, “I miss myself.”
That statement struck me to the core. You know why? Because I miss being me too! There is this incredible longing inside me to be “more” or “better” or “fuller” or something. I fall way short of the me I want to be, and I long for (or miss) that. Yet I still want to be treated as though I were fully “me” even though I don’t meet my own standard for myself.
Why not, then, treat the Alzheimer’s victim as though they were fully themselves, regardless of how short they fall from the perfect version of that self?
Ultimately, our longing is for acceptance, love, safety. Let’s just make a pact to offer it unconditionally to each other regardless of where we are on this journey toward the perfect self.
Alzheimer’s and the Ego: the Power of No
Yesterday a social worker came to the house to evaluate Dad for possible in-home care assistance. It was a thoroughly humiliating experience for Dad.
The list of questions issued were designed to find out exactly what Dad can and cannot do for himself. The fact that Dad can’t do much at all for himself is something we try not to throw in his face even as it happens. Every time Dad can’t sit in the chair correctly and a struggle ensues to find the right verbal or physical cue to help him do so, Dad’s self-esteem takes a dive. Every time he can’t find a certain room in the house… can’t tell time… etc. So when a list of questions comes along and lays out each and every one of his deficiencies in one sitting, piling them up in front of him like so much garbage to be hauled around, well, it would be an understatement to say it was humiliating.
The further we got into the questionnaire, the more Dad’s countenance fell. It got to the point that I let Dad tell the social worker that he had no problem doing x or y or z, even though I knew the truth.
We ended up somewhere between the truth and Dad’s dignity, honoring neither.
At the very end, this wise social worker asked a question that was clearly not on the list. She asked, “Do you like to fish?”
You could see the dark cloud lift from over Dad’s beaten-down self! A tiny bit of affirmation in the midst of all that pummeling! Never mind that Dad can’t do it anymore; the question at least allowed him the pleasure of showing a positive side of himself. For once, he got to answer a very truthful “yes!”
And that made me wonder: why can’t we–in the pursuit of scientific correctness–remember the spirit of a man? Why can’t we sprinkle questionnaires with bits of affirmation for the sake of dignity alone? Would it hurt science or government to ask “what’s one of your favorite books?” to a woman applying for food stamps? Or “what superpowers would you most like to have?” to a veteran seeking disability assistance? Shoot, while I’m at it, can we change the the category from “seniors and people with disabilties” to “seniors and people with abilities”? There are always things we can still do; things we still like; things we still dream about.
Just stuff I wonder.
And you? Do you have any beef with questionnaires?
More on the brain’s default network:
The default network in the brain is considered a “second brain” because it turns on when the rest of the brain is at rest, and turns off when the rest of the brain is at work. Normally, that is. As people age, the default network is less and less capable of shutting down when the mind is concentrating on some difficult cognitive task as it would do in a younger adult’s brain. Since the default network uses 30% more resources than the rest of the brain, you can see how the resources available for cognitively challenging tasks decreases as we age.
In Alzheimer’s, you get the extreme case of this aging effect: the default network doesn’t shut down at all when it’s supposed to (same as in Schizophrenia–which is probably why they use antipsychotic drugs meant for Schizophrenia in Alzheimer’s patients) until that part of the brain eventually dies.
The default network is not very developed in children. It gets more active as we grow into adulthood. That makes me wonder if language is the software that runs the default network. Think about it: the default network is the part of the brain that sorts, categorizes, and edits/deletes memories, and language is the software that sorts, categorizes, and edits/deletes meaning. With language also comes prejudice, and prejudice does not exist in the very young. Also, in Alzheimer’s the default network eventually atrophies, and language ceases (just further argument that the default network is inextricably tied to language).
All of which brings me to the point of this post. Last week there were articles all over the news saying that having more than one language guards you against the worst of Alzheimer’s. Mom spoke four languages and fell prey to Alzheimer’s in her sixties–with no family history of early Alzheimer’s. Dad spoke three
e all know, even without reading research papers, that music has emotional benefit: it can excite and calm and induce a wonderfully cathartic weeping session. This applies whether you’re healthy or sick; whether you have Parkinson’s or autism or Alzheimer’s.
But studies have found that music can also be of cognitive benefit: it helps people remember things better.
What exactly does this mean, and what specifically does it mean for an Alzheimer’s patient? Does it mean that if you play the oldies station in the background all the time, your Mom will wake up one day and remember everything again?
Let’s look at the evidence:
First of all, "music" is a pretty general term. Are we talking about singing? Playing a guitar? Listening to Mozart? Listening to Bobby McFerrin’s improvisational jazz? Believe it or not, these are all different things.
According to a study reported by Time Magazine,("Music on the Brain")
Different networks of neurons are activated [in the brain], depending on whether a person is listening to music or playing an instrument, and whether or not the music involves lyrics.
In another study, quoted in Neuroscience for Kids,
researchers have recorded neuronal activity from the temporal lobe of patients undergoing brain surgery for epilepsy. During this study, awake patients heard either a song by Mozart, a folk song or the theme from "Miami Vice". These different kinds of music had different effects on the neurons in the temporal lobe.
Also, from Time'“Music on the Brain”
Experimental Audiology in Germany has shown that intensive practice of an instrument leads to discernible enlargement of parts of the cerebral cortex, the layer of gray matter most closely associated with higher brain function.
As you can see, different music affects different parts of the normal brain in different ways.
People are always studying the music-brain connection, trying to understand the mystery of it. There was a particular study done in 1993 that tried to see if music affected memory. The researchers used a song by Mozart for their experiment, and their results seemed to show that this composer’s music improved test-taking. This became widely known as The Mozart Effect, and people started playing Mozart to their unborn babies thinking it would give them a head start in learning.
Though later studies failed to duplicate the Mozart Effect (perhaps the only real effect is that Mozart helps relax the body right before a test), that original research sparked further research into music-as-memory-aid. A recent study, for example, found that Alzheimer’s patients can remember new information if it is sung to them much better than if it is spoken (as opposed to healthy people who can remember it equally well when sung as opposed to spoken).
We also know without reading studies that music helps trigger old memories. For example, when I hear the song "Dust in the Wind," I am immediately transported back to our family van as we drove across the country in 1977. I remember my oldest sister introducing this song to me, and how it resonated with the angst of my teenage years, etc. A whole cascade of memories brought on by a single song.
In a study reported by the Telegraph in 2009, researchers found that this recall effect is due to the fact that music is processed in the same area of the brain that forms vivid memories. They furthermore found that such memories appear to be immune to the ravages of Alzheimer’s. And this could lead to a unique kind of therapy:
Because memory for autobiographically important music seems to be spared in people with Alzheimer’s disease, …making a "soundtrack of someone’s life" before their mind is too damaged, and playing it back to them could help form a resistance to the disease.
Love the idea! Plus I have a variation on this idea from watching this next video of Bobby McFerrin (at a conference called "Notes and Neurons"), and from observing Mom as I play the piano. First, here’s Bobby:
What Bobby is doing here is getting the mind to go in a familiar direction (the pentatonic scale), then leaving an auditory blank and letting the mind fill it in. I mean, aside from jumping around, that's what he's doing. He’s giving the mind a puzzle to solve. He’s making the mind work. And working the mind is better than not working the mind if you want to keep it.
The next part of my idea came from playing the piano for Mom and watching her reaction. You should know Mom hasn’t spoken but a few words in a couple years, and she no longer sings intelligible tunes. You should also know that I don't play the piano. I used to when I was seven, but now my playing is reduced to guessing the notes with my right hand. I can play fast enough for the tune to be recognizable. Barely. Fortunately for Mom, the tune is always a hymn—something she is very familiar with. Unfortunately for Mom, I mangle the tune. And that's where the puzzle comes in.
See, when my finger's can't find the right note, Mom gets exasperated and sings it out loud to help me find the dang thing. I'm even wondering if this puzzle-solving exercise is a factor in Mom's recent awakening.
So here is my variation on the soundtrack idea. Try this exercise (for an Alzheimer’s patient) with the following video clip:
Play it once. It will probably be familiar to the listener already, but there are enough repetitions in this piece that parts of it will quickly become familiar if they aren’t already. Play the video again, but pause the video every so often. There are a ton of repeated theme snippets. Pause before a theme is repeated and see if the listener is prompted to supply the missing piece. If they do, you've got a good puzzle to use.
Then, if you do this with that "Life Playlist", you should be able to double the benefit in fighting that Alzheimer’s monster.
Music and Caregiving—Pandora to the Rescue
Alzheimer’s and Music: Stimulating the Brain into Action
Posit Science Blog, Your Brain on Jazz
American Music Conference, Music and the Brain
The first thing you have to know about Mom is that she is the biggest sweetheart on the planet. She has always said “yes” to anyone who asked her for a favor or a meal or a ride or even cash. We used to berate her over some of these decisions. “Mom, you’re just enabling them to go get drunk,” or whatever. We’d rather keep our boundaries intact. Keep safe. Not Mom. She’d rather “do onto others” as Jesus wanted her to do–and let Jesus take care of punishment if the recipient abused the gift.
With that in mind, it puzzles me that these days, the word most frequently pulled out of her tiny residual vocabulary (5-10 words at present) is the word “no.”
“Mom, shall we get up?”
“Mom, isn’t this music pretty?”
“Do you want to go for a walk?”
Here’s the curious part. Her body language still says “yes.” So why the verbal “no”?
I’m thinking that this knee-jerk negation is her last recourse to individuality. Having lost most of what makes her a person, she is resorting to negation as a way to distinguish herself from others.
Think about it. “Yes” blends us into other people. It’s a unifying word. It accepts. It serves. It hugs and becomes one with the other.
“No” on the other hand, puts up a wall between the self and the other. It says, I am me and you are you and it’s going to stop there.
It’s Mom’s only way, I believe, to retain a feeling of self.
And that revelation changes how I look at the world. You wonder why some people just can’t play nice in the world arena; why they have to say “no” to constructive engagement; why they have to strap bombs around themselves and “no” themselves and other people into oblivion.
Perhaps it’s because those people feel that a “yes” will blend them into the will of the other–a will that is unacceptable to their idea of a healthy self. A “no,” they feel, is the only way they’ll be seen.
Do you see what I’m saying? The ego’s boundaries collapse under yes. “No” is the last bastion of the tormented ego.
Memory can be wonderful and cruel all at once.
It’s been almost a year since Dad died, and I’ve discovered that it takes a year to fully recover from the exhaustion of caregiving. It takes a year to recover fully enough to crave the chance to do it a second time over—to do it right this time.
Last Thursday was one of those gorgeous days that make your spirit soar. It was just warm enough, just breezy enough, just relaxing enough, just full enough of good plans that I wanted Dad here to enjoy it with us. I was in the middle of a supermarket parking lot when that thought came to me, and it was the beginning of a four-day breakdown.
Why can’t I be given a second chance? I’ve got all my energy back now, and I swear if I’m allowed, I’ll show Daddy all the tenderness that I had no time or energy to give him before. Why did he have to die before I recovered my ability to love him?
It was a catch-22 I battled with all weekend.
That Thursday evening I drove over the mountains to attend the licensing of a young preacher. I took advantage of the lonesome drive to listen to a book on tape my niece lent me. The title was “My Life in the Middle Ages.” It was supposed to be funny. Turns out the first two CDs were all about this guy’s father’s declining months. It was about death; about tying up all those messy loose ends.
Of course I bawled my way through that. When I couldn’t take it anymore—when I thought I’d better get my face in shape for the licensing ceremony—I popped in an Ingrid Michaelson CD. Quirky, upbeat Ingrid. Problem is, I’d never really listened to some of those songs before. About the fifth song on the CD is about the inevitability of death. “We are all snowmen, and we’re going to melt one day.”
The same message is being pounded into me over and over.
We’re all snowmen, and were are going to melt one day. It’s the norm. It’s not a devastating tragedy.
But the point of it? The point of living and dying and leaving others behind to bawls their eyes out?
Here I was, the daughter of a preacher, going to the licensing ceremony of a young, vibrant, new preacher, and I wasn’t getting it.
The point of living and dying, it slowly sunk in, is to pass on the baton. The best thing we can do is to spend ourselves living, then die and offer the lessons of our lives as rich mulch for the next generation.
It made me think of all the lessons I absorbed from Dad’s life. Like:
– Nature is awesome
– Don’t spend what you don’t have
– Prayer changes things
– God is gentle
– Invest in people on the fringe of society; they’re the ones who will remember you
It was a good weekend to mourn and know that there is good in all of this.
From now on, when mourning strikes, I will try to add to the list of lessons learned.
And I will think about how my life will have an impact after I—like all of us will—eventually melt.
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