Healing Songs Music Therapy Helps Patients Discover Links to Their Pasts

By Theresa Tighe Of the Post-Dispatch | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), August 13, 1995 | Go to article overview

Healing Songs Music Therapy Helps Patients Discover Links to Their Pasts


Theresa Tighe Of the Post-Dispatch, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Helen Fruth can't recall her grandson's name. She can croon every word of "My Blue Heaven," the song she and her late husband called theirs.

When Fruth sings, her anxiety and confusion from Alzheimer's disease subside.

For almost three years, after his Parkinson's disease should have put him in a wheelchair, Joseph Pearl steadied himself by singing the march from "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and was able to walk. Since his army days in World War II, he had associated the march with determination.

Sometimes, familiar music can set people who no longer know their names to remembering, people who no longer talk to singing and people who no longer walk to dancing.

Music therapists use this phenomenon to make life better for stroke, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease patients.

"People with memory problems generally will respond to a song that was very, very familiar to them or had some personal significance," said Connie Tomaino, director of music therapy at the Beth Abraham Hospital in New York City.

For some, that response is a smile, a tear or a few minutes of calm. When an accident, injury or illness turns someone into a screamer, a pacer or a stone, such moments are precious.

Fruth's daughter, Lois Gale, cuts the pain of nursing home visits by attending the home's sing-alongs.

As mother and daughter chime in on "My Blue Heaven," they sing their family's special lyrics, "Helen and me and Lois make three."

"I get goose bumps and Mother just beams," Gale said.

Those feelings reflect the power of music, Tomaino said.

A song travels down the auditory nerve into the limbic system, the part of the brain that involves long-term memories and the feelings associated with those memories, Tomaino said. Resurrecting Memories

At Surrey Place in Chesterfield, the nursing home where Helen Fruth, 84, lives, aides sometimes turn a potential battle over dressing or going to the toilet into a game by singing.

"The music is a diversion. If you sing something they enjoy, they become comfortable and relaxed, and the task turns from a frustration into fun," said Zoe Dearing, a musical therapist who works at Surrey Place.

Studies show that people respond best to songs from childhood and courting days. Songs must be matched to a person's taste. Folk songs work for some, jazz for others, the big band sound for many. Families can help by providing therapists with musical histories.

One woman who lives at Surrey Place responds to a ditty called "Paddy McGinity's Goat."

Before several strokes left her confused, she was a foundation stone in a rollicking Irish-American tribe.

"When that song is sung, she is a member of a family again," Dearing said. "The song pulls back her memory of self-worth, and for a moment she has purpose."

Tomaino cautions that music has the power to resurrect painful feelings.

In one of her first therapy sessions about two decades ago, Tomaino played Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyries" for a group of people with dementia, one of whom loved Wagner. No one told Tomaino that a Jewish woman in the group had survived a concentration camp. The Nazis played "The Ride of the Valkyries" as they marched Jews into extermination chambers.

After a few notes, the Jewish woman began screaming. Then she stopped talking - for two days. Finding Detours

The Greeks noted the healing power of music. But modern medicine ignored music as therapy until after World War II.

That's when barber shop quartets, girl singers and symphony orchestras streamed into veterans' hospitals, and hospital workers noticed that music helped injured veterans recover.

Scientists have yet to prove exactly how music is therapeutic. …

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