Music used to 'awaken' Alzheimer's patients

March 05, 1994|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,Sun Staff Writer

Dr. Oliver Sacks, whose writings have explored the quirks of the human brain, was speaking of Alzheimer's disease when his thoughts turned to the day's space launch.

"It's a planetary event, a human event," the neurologist said yesterday, addressing a hushed crowd of health professionals in downtown Baltimore.

"And you know, everybody down there feels it. You feel something of the history of the species. And I think old people and young people equally . . . need to feel the grand purpose of which they have been part, of which they are still part."

This was not a digression.

The bearded author of "Awakenings" and "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat," said people with neurological afflictions such as Alzheimer's need to share the universal experiences that make everyone feel alive.

Dr. Sacks, invited to address an annual conference sponsored by the Meridian Healthcare chain of nursing homes, argued that enjoyments such as art, music, plants and children can tap the inner reserves of patients who may seem mentally lost.

He didn't suggest that advanced Alzheimer's patients can make startling recoveries from a disease that steadily robs people of their ability to remember, reason and carry on the basic functions of life. Rather, he said care-givers can rescue pieces of imagination and intellect by considering what makes their patients tick.

Music, for instance, has the mysterious ability to bring concentration and rhythm to people who seem to have lost all mental focus, he said. Strangely, the effects can linger minutes or even hours after the notes have ended.

But it's not a matter of playing the same tune to everyone. Just as each person has a unique personality and background, each has a musical preference.

"You have to find the right music," he said. "There is no general music."

Dr. Sacks, professor of neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, drew analogies from patients who had lapsed into semitrances when stricken by encephalitis after World War I.

These were the same patients who became subjects of his book, "Awakenings," later made into a movie featuring Robin Williams as the young Dr. Sacks. It was the story of a 1960s medical miracle gone awry -- a drug that suddenly awoke people from their slumbers, then sadly lost its effect.

But even in their trances, the people could be touched.

"Sometimes you had patients who could not take a single step but could dance, or who could not utter a single syllable but could sing."

He spoke of a woman who would sit in a stupor except when offered a seat at the piano. Then, she could play Chopin and Schubert for hours.

A retired cobbler who had lost all contact with people regained a sense of himself when given cobbler's tools and a job fixing shoes for hospital patients.

A withdrawn and suspicious woman who could not make friends was moved by the gift of a cactus plant.

"She became attached to this cactus. The cactus was her first living relationship. . . . It was a beginning for her."

The ideal nursing home, he said, is a small intimate place where residents live in communal groups of 25 or 30 people. Even the most demented patients are given roles in plays. There are visits by children, animals to pet and gardens to tend.

"To be in touch with the environment is absolutely crucial," he said. "I think a garden is not just a luxury but absolutely a necessity on some of the dementia units."

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