Favorite songs refresh aging minds
Penny Roberts scanned the activities room at Sherman Oaks Health & Rehab Center on Wednesday morning looking for Marilyn. She found her slumped in her wheelchair, head down, eyes closed and completely oblivious to the 30 other seniors, and the program going on around her. “Hi, Marilyn. It’s me, Penny,” the music therapist said, kneeling in front of Marilyn’s wheelchair. A quizzical look spread across the face of the 89-year-old woman suffering from dementia, then a slow smile of recognition. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORE11 theater productions to see in Southern California this week, Dec. 27-Jan. 2She couldn’t remember her 89th birthday had been Tuesday, or that her family had come to celebrate with her. She couldn’t remember how long she had lived here or what she had for breakfast that morning. But when Penny started strumming her guitar in Marilyn’s room a few minutes later, the birthday girl could remember almost every word to the song her mother sang to her 80 years ago when she was a little girl growing up in Brooklyn – “You Are My Sunshine.” Before Wednesday was over, Penny Roberts and her guitar would make five more stops like this one, using music to kindle the light that still burns inside her Alzheimer’s patients, including one man who wants to sing only Bob Marley and Three Dog Night songs. She is one of two full-time music therapists, along with a team of student intern volunteers majoring in music therapy at California State University, Northridge, who visit dozens of Alzheimer’s patients every week for VITAS Hospice Care in Encino. Penny knows each of her seniors’ life stories and favorite songs. She knows their children and grandchildren. She knows their doctors and therapists. And after each song is sung – while they are still smiling and as sharp as they are ever going to be – she gently prods them with questions about how they are feeling, is there anything they need or want to tell her, anything that hurts. Before her seniors retreat into their private worlds again, she will start playing another of their favorite songs to sing along with, filing away in her memory what they have said so she can add it to their medical charts later. What doctors, therapists and even family members might have trouble getting out of an Alzheimer’s patient, an old, favorite song can. “Marilyn may not be able to finish a sentence, but she can sing the words to `Tennessee Waltz’ with me,” Penny said. “It’s a great sense of pride for her to remember these songs.” Music therapy isn’t new. It began after World War I when community musicians went to veterans hospitals to play for thousands of vets suffering both physical and emotional trauma from the war. The vets responded to the music, and by the 1950s colleges were offering music therapy degree programs to train musicians in dealing with developmentally disabled people and dementia patients. As she finishes singing “You Are My Sunshine,” Marilyn reaches out and touches Penny’s knee, laughing. “I got all the words right, isn’t that something?” she said. Then Marilyn talked about growing up in Brooklyn and cooking for her brothers and sisters while her mother worked. “I kept the home fires burning,” she said. “It’s nice here, but it’s not like home. It’s all different now.” Penny nodded and quickly picked up her guitar. Marilyn was going away again. “How about this one?” she said, starting to sing and play “A Bicycle Built For Two.” Marilyn, whose family doesn’t want her last name used, sang with Penny and then told her about the boy she rode a bicycle built for two with back in Brooklyn. “He wouldn’t let me pedal, I don’t know why,” she said, laughing. Half an hour later, Penny pushed Marilyn in her wheelchair to the dining room for lunch. “I hope it was a good day for you,” the music therapist said. “It was a lovely day,” Marilyn said, squeezing her hand. Dennis McCarthy’s column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday. [email protected] (818) 713-3749160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!