Glen Campbell: Alzheimer’s can’t silence the music

Singer’s Grammy appearance was powerful palliative

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Glen Campbell walked onstage at the Grammys earlier this month looking confident, but not exactly like the Glen Campbell I had seen performing before. Something about his stance — the way he held his shoulders — seemed familiar to me. And then the camera panned toward his eyes: That was it. A sparkle was gone. Something was flatter, more far away. Distant.

The band started playing. He stood up straighter. His eyes suddenly engaged. He began singing - the timbre and tone in his voice still strong, but a little wobbly, a little different. And then I started to cry.

It was eerily similar to the way my father was onstage, performing with his a capella singing group, the Grunyons, even after he’d had Alzheimer’s for more than 10 years.

Mr. Campbell and my father: They were there. But they weren’t … at the same time. The disease had taken almost everything away — except the music. Their connection to the music, the way it made them come alive despite their disease — it was the same.

Dr. Oliver Sacks, the renowned neurologist and author (“Awakenings”) has done extensive research on music and Alzheimer’s, much of it compiled in his recent book, “Musicophilia.”

Chicago radio news anchor Mary Ellen Geist plays the piano as her musician father, Woody Geist, and mother, Rosemary Geist, look on. Her father, now deceased, had Alzheimer's disease for the last decade of his life, but music proved palliative (Fabrizio Constantini/Special to The Washington Times)

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Chicago radio news anchor Mary Ellen Geist plays the piano as her ... more >

“Remembering music, listening to it or playing it, is entirely in the present, and, while it lasts, it can bridge even the abyss of extreme amnesia or dementia,” he writes on his website. “Music can be more powerful than any drugs.”

And the return to earth afterwards can be just as sudden and jarring as the crash from a drug high.

Lost and found

Mr. Campbell’s performance was triumphant. There were many tears in the audience. He even hit all the high notes. But as “the Rhinestone Cowboy” left the Grammy stage for what will probably be the last time, did he understand that he had just given a stellar performance despite a fatal disease that takes memories away? Probably not.

Just the way it had happened when my father finished a performance: The minute the music was over, Mr. Campbell’s shoulders slumped a bit. His confidence dissipated, suddenly, like a deflated balloon. A lost and almost fearful look came over his eyes, and then he spoke the words that will ring in my ears, always: “Where do I go?” I saw his wife watching him perform — so proud, in awe. And then — at those words, “Where do I go?” — spreading alarm in her eyes: Oh, … no. … He’s lost, again. … He might not be able to get off the stage by himself.

At the end of almost every evening toward the end of my father’s life, when he was still living at home, when he started getting sleepy, he said — over and over again: “Where do I go now?” He had no idea what house he was in, or where his bedroom was.

As my father’s disease progressed, we used music to calm him, to make him happy, to energize him, to soothe him to sleep. We used different songs for different tasks. My mother and I woke him up with Frank Sinatra’s “Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” For showering, Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” worked well. At dusk, “sundowning” (a state of late afternoon agitation common in Alzheimer’s) would kick in; Diana Krall’s “I Get Along Without You Very Well” always helped him settle in and settle down. And of course, he sang along. And he almost always knew all the words, even though when you pointed to an object — a chair, a television, a spoon — he had no idea what it was called.

When he was very hard to reach, almost as if his batteries had run down, I would often begin singing “Hail to the Victors,” the fight song of his alma mater, the University of Michigan. He always smiled and chimed in, and he always knew all the words.

I recently found this unattributed quote: “No matter how lost you are, music can bring you home.”

Performing music made my father feel like he was home — something he otherwise rarely felt, even when he was, well, home.

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