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