Recently, my family and I had brunch with my 95 year old grandmother at her assisted living home. Jerry Roman, the regular pianist at Foxhill, stopped playing as we walked in and gave my grandmother an “uninterrupted hug.” Jerry’s a favorite among the elderly crowd, one of those guys that seems to know every tune in the book. The residents call out, “Play As Time Goes By . . . Easter Parade . . . New York, New York,” and Jerry doesn’t miss a beat. He keeps his left hand stride going and plays the melodies loud and clear, always smiling and greeting his audience. The residents tap a hand or foot if they can, the nurses may move a wheelchair along to the music. Mrs. Hudson always yells out, “Play When The Saints Go Marching In.” Jerry plays it every time, and every time, Mrs. Hudson, laughing, tells him to take some piano lessons.
Like most the resident’s of Foxhill’s seventh floor, my grandmother requires full time care. She can’t walk on her own, feed or bathe herself and her memory is fading. When we sat down to brunch she looked at me and then asked my mom “Is that Jim?” Remarkably though, like most resident’s of the seventh floor, she knows all the words to the tunes that Jerry plays.
After brunch my family and I slipped off to another room with a grand piano. “Play All The Things You Are” my grandmother asked me. It's the one tune Jerry doesn’t know. I played and she sang along. She knew all the words.
In his blog, our saxophonist Stan shares a story about his father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s. Stan's father was a pianist who “knew neither which day nor month it was, who was the President of the United States nor his physical location, but he could still play.” His post is accompanied by a recording of Stan’s and his father’s last duo session. They’re playing All The Things You Are.
The neurologist Olive Sacks writes, “Alzheimer's can totally destroy the ability to remember family members or events from one's own life—but musical memory somehow survives the ravages of disease, and even in people with advanced dementia, music can often reawaken personal memories and associations that are otherwise lost...Music is much more than a beautiful luxury: It is a fundamental way of expressing our humanity—and it is often our best medicine.”
Will Armstrong is the founder of WillYouLearn. He's a professional pianist with over 20 years of teaching experience.