alzheimer disease helped my mom play the piano

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I’m lucky. When I miss Mom, I can go back to joyful times we experienced together and relive them, as if she were still here. I’m glad we did the things we did in the moment, and I’m doubly glad I preserved them in images, sounds and words that can now be shared.

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Flashback December 21, 2013: “Do you want to try playing Ms Patti?” Eric the Piano Man questions, gentle yet intent. The benefits of music for Alzheimers patients are well known, so I’ve hired a musician to help with Mom’s care.

“I don’t think I can. I don’t know how,” Mom replies. She adores singing, knows the words to hundreds of songs, still remembers them mostly. But she never learned to read music or play an instrument. Now she’s 85 and in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Her language skills are beginning to evaporate – she rarely completes a sentence anymore. It seems unlikely she should be able to play the piano at this stage, even as she’s coming ’round the mountain.

Eric is undeterred: “I think you can Ms Patti. Do you want to give it a try?” He is soft yet insistent, slyly shy in the art of persuasion. Angels are like that. They ambush you quietly, make you believe you can do things you think you can’t, then disappear without a trace once you’ve conquered the unconquerable. 

Eric sits at the piano; Mom reposes in a big old blue armchair beside it in the living room of The Home. I’ve placed the chair slightly off right angles to the piano so Mom faces Eric’s profile as he plays. When he turns to sing with her, long-buried lyrics float to the surface of her receding memory, dance to his tune and in the process create a magical duet. Like Caroline and Gaby (the other earthbound angels with whom we’ve crossed paths on this Alzheimer’s journey) Eric connected with Mom within seconds of meeting her. The instant bond grew quickly through their shared love of music. She trusts him. He might just succeed in convincing her to play.

This is our third weekly rendez-vous and things are going well. I knew Mom would love this “music therapy” just as she does Thursday morning sing-alongs, but I never dreamed just how much happiness private sessions would bring her. Seeing her transformed by the achievements she experiences as she sings with Eric is so moving I can hardly find the words to describe how grateful I am — and now she may play!

“Do you want to try Ms Patti? Eric persists.

“I guess I could,” Mom relents. She’s always been the type to grab life by the horns. I help her from the armchair and slide her onto the bench beside Eric. She sits for a minute, stroking the tops of her legs up-and-down-up-and-down-up-and-down as people with Alzheimer often do. It’s almost like a meditation. Or an endless prayer.

Finally, Mom lifts her right hand and touches the piano, tentatively at first then with increased confidence, clearly enjoying the feeling. She lifts the other hand. Sets her fingers down one after the other. I notice the contrast of her bright pink nails against the white and black keys.

Eric anticipates her next moves and improvises alongside her. The result is lopsided and quirky. The notes (even to totally unmusical me) are disjointed. There’s no rhyme or reason to the melody. Yet I am captivated. My heart is in my throat. This haphazard bit of music is among the most poignant I’ve ever heard: a unique creation in this special time and space, a piece that has never been played before and will never be played again. It was born of Alzheimer’s disease, unconditional love, compassion, determination, empathy and courage: an ode to the fully realized potential of a single moment, a tribute to that which will soon be gone and forgotten.

There is great beauty in that. Great beauty indeed.

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9 Comments

  1. Thanks Susan. I so appreciated your sharing this. Mom played the piano and organ in church for years, and I often encourage her to do it. She does read music. She will soon be 91 and is in moderate-stage dementia/Alzheimer’s. We live in a condo building, and our next-door neighbor is an 80-year-old still-active professional piano player. We hear him playing his grand piano a lot. Mom is so aware of her decreased skill in piano playing that she is afraid he will hear her playing and making all her “mistakes”. Still, when she does sit at the piano she has a measure of enjoyment in it, while at the same time being aware of and frustrated by her “mistakes”, thinking that is what is being heard. I praise her, have caught her unawares on video, and emphasize her enjoyment of it. The fact that she is doing it for the enjoyment alone is the aspect of playing that encourages her to continue trying. I love when she sits down to do it and it makes her feel good for trying. XO

    • Thanks for sharing your delightful story Barbara, and how wonderful for your Mom that she can still enjoy playing. Did you show her the video of Mom playing with Eric? I wonder if she would like seeing it? I also wondered if you had spoken with the neighbour who plays in case he might be interested in engaging musically with your mom in some way? Music truly is such a a great gift. Thanks again for sharing your story.

  2. Truly wonderful experience and so lovely to play that again and again Susan Thank you for sharing your precious memories and most of all the joy of the moment, it does the heart good, Liz x

  3. What a joy-filled moment in time. My mother also did the stroking of fingers up and down her legs-smoothing and straightening fabric as it slid beneath her fingers.
    I am so glad that the music helped your mom and it also helped you. You found some comfort in knowing that she was engaged in something tangible. xo Diana

    • Yes, Diana, it was joy-filled and I’m so grateful I was able to provide and share in many such moments with Mom – what a blessing. I did find comfort and healing where so many only experience pain and anguish. I feel I was very lucky indeed.

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