Accessing memory through music

Marcia and Abbot - Restaurant

Marcia and Abbot enjoy time out at restaurants

By Marcia Vose
When my mother was in her mid-seventies, she developed signs of Alzheimer’s disease (AD), and from there, declined steadily over the next 12 years until her death at age 86. I served as her caretaker for a short while, but then she progressed into assisted living, and finally to a dedicated Alzheimer’s facility in Wellesley.

Ironically, I noticed signs of memory problems and confusion in my husband about ten years ago. He had suffered a fractured skull from a boating accident while in his mid-twenties, and consulted a neurologist, who diagnosed mild cognitive impairment stemming from this accident. The neurologist had no idea of the future, except to say that, with this diagnosis, Abbot would be highly susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease. Three years ago he underwent brain surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and while we noticed improvement in his symptoms, it lasted only a few months. Finally, two years ago, the doctor diagnosed early AD.

Oddly, I was relieved to finally have his condition diagnosed, and if there is good in everything, the experience with my mother gave me an idea what the future might hold for my husband. Because his symptoms are caused by both conditions, however, his progression is difficult to predict. Currently, he has lost his short-term memory, and gets confused easily, particularly when he is away from his usual routine. But he has retained his sense of humor and is verbal, so we still have a lot of fun together and hope to remain in our home for as long as possible.

Abbot is very social and he loves to go out to lunch, but it is still difficult to find enough things to do at his level. He often spends hours in front of television. His balance is so precarious that he has had to stop balance classes at the Duxbury Senior Center, but he is still able to attend some of the programs there.

I first heard about the SSC Memory Café when I was volunteering at South Shore Conservatory (SSC). I was intrigued by the idea of a program for both caregivers and their loved ones with memory afflictions.  The “café” concept became immediately apparent, as we were welcomed with coffee, tea and breakfast treats. This seemed to put everyone at ease, and those who were able to, talked informally until the program started.  We then began with creative crafts and made a flowerpot to take home. The second half involved a music activity with Eve Montague, Director of Creative Art Therapies, who led us with her acoustic guitar. She is incredibly gifted in engaging those with disabilities, handing out instruments to everyone, playing easy songs and singing.

Recently, Eve passed out bells and chimes, each representing a single note, and taught us about the pentatonic scale. She had us playing songs using these instruments, with fun and laughter ensuing. Eve asked one participant, who is not very verbal, to lead the musicians in making up a song, and he muttered, “I need an example.” Eve suggested he try to lead the group in playing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” and to her astonishment, he tapped the appropriate players in sounding the correct notes. How he did this so perfectly is astounding!

Both my husband and I enjoy seeing others in the same situation, and have even formed a little group with those who come regularly. There is relief in forming a bond with others whose experience in the regular social world often leads to feelings of isolation and uselessness. We usually go out to lunch after the café, both of us in high spirits. That joy is priceless!

The SSC Memory Café in Hingham meets the third Thursday of each month from 12:30 – 2:30 pm.  The SSC Memory Café in Duxbury meets the first Tuesday of each month from 10:30 am – 12:30 pm. Participants are encouraged attend both of these monthly cafés, offered free of charge through the generous support of The Middleton Family Foundation and the Harry C. and Mary Elizabeth Grafton Memorial Fund.



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