80: Music Therapy

80: Music Therapy

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer's & Other Dementias

Music Therapy

Music is the universal language of mankind.

~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Civil War-era lawyer, orator, and social activist Robert Ingersoll said, “Music expresses feeling and thought, without language; it was below and before speech, and it is above and beyond all words.” Ingersoll’s words resonate with me, for Alzheimer’s disease has snatched ordinary words from my father. He now speaks solely in Italian, reverting to the language of his youth — an even crueler change for a deeply intellectual man who once knew several languages as a humanities professor. Although I attempt Italian, my grammar is so broken that no deep thoughts are possible, only fractured phrases conveying trivial facts, such as the year I graduated from college. Even if I were to perfect this language, there would still be a disconnect because he uses the Sardo dialect, a tongue virtually impossible to those outside of the island.

Instead, I communicate with my father through the piano. The scene is always the same: My mother and I push my father’s wheelchair through the halls of the nursing home and place him at the perfect distance from the massive mahogany instrument. My mother’s friends shuffle in as well, pushing their loved ones into the lobby and chattering about whether I will play “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” because of the afternoon’s baseball game.

I sit at the padded bench, my fingers tingling. As my hands assume a life of their own, I summon the love I cannot verbally express and project it through the black and white keys. The first song I play for him is Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” After such a serious opening act, I try to liven the mood with “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “You Are My Sunshine,” and “Oh! Susanna.” (I’ll never understand why a man who grew up in Europe finds solace in this Southern anthem.)

After I finish, I breathlessly wait for his response “Stai molto bene!”

It is in his response that I feel fulfilled, because I realize we are still able to connect despite the clutches of this leech that is slowly sucking the life from my father. When I see how my father’s face and the faces of dozens who gather to participate in this Sunday ritual light up, I think that an even higher level of cognitive functioning happens. I believe that the music transcends ordinary boundaries and expresses the intangible, a heightened form of expression not possible with words alone.

Because it stems from our souls and pours into our hearts, no translator misinterprets the message. Undoubtedly, music alone is the universal language.

~Kristina Aste-Mayer

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