When Cindy’s 88-year-old father came to live with her in July 2009, she didn’t know what she was in for. Wrestling with Alzheimer’s and recently widowed, Ralph was recovering from a stroke and struggling to walk. As the seasons changed, he found the weather much colder on Long Island than he was used to in Florida. Everything was new and unfamiliar.
A man who “would never hurt a fly,” Ralph became unpredictable, even violent. “You name it, I was dealing with it,” recalls Cindy, who prefers not to share her last name to protect her privacy. “He would try to jump from a moving car. If we went to the supermarket, he’d pick up a peach and stand there, eating it. When I tried to take it away, he started swinging at me. One time, in the kitchen, he tried to choke me. It was all because of his illness.”
Disabled herself, Cindy did her best to manage her dad’s needs. Determined to keep him out of a nursing home, she found him an apartment, took him with her during the day as she ran errands and went to medical appointments, and made his meals.
A Musical Boost for Home Care, Thanks to Sinatra
Two years passed, and Ralph’s Alzheimer’s worsened. Cindy knew she needed help. That spring, she read a newspaper interview with Dan Cohen, describing how Music & Memory’s personalized music program was providing huge benefits for nursing home residents with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
She called Dan right away and explained her situation. Although Music & Memory does not have the resources to provide individuals with iPods, after Cindy ran into difficulties obtaining one, Dan worked out an arrangement to address her exceptional circumstances. Soon after, Cindy received an iPod Shuffle that Dan had loaded with Ralph’s favorite music—Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett.
It was a whole new world. Anticipating situations that would make Ralph anxious and aggressive, Cindy now simply placed headphones over his ears and turned on the iPod. “You could always tell when he was listening to Frank Sinatra,” she says. “His hands would go up, like he was conducting.
“He’d be walking with his walker, wearing his iPod. When Frank would come on, he’d stop for a bit, hang onto his walker and do his little wiggle dance. He was so cute!”
After Two Years of Struggle, a Source of Calm
The iPod calmed Ralph when Cindy had to get him up and going for the day, and when they went to the doctor’s. She’d place on his headphones as he rode his stationary bike while she cooked dinner. He’d listen happily to his music, singing in the sun on his apartment’s patio.
On Saturday afternoons, she’d set up his iPod as they watched kids playing baseball at a nearby field. When the kids had left, as Ralph continued sitting and listening to his music, Cindy would toss him a Frisbee and he’d throw it back.
The iPod also eased a major transition that summer, when Cindy hired round-the-clock aides to help her father. At first, he fought back as the aides tried to get him up for the day. When Cindy set up his iPod, he relaxed and cooperated. As an extra bonus, one of the aides, a young man, also loved Sinatra—and the music took on even more significance as a means of sharing and building trust.
Respite from the “Black Hole” of Alzheimer’s
Then, that fall, Ralph spiked a bladder infection that triggered heart problems, landing him in the hospital. “He’d try to fight and get out of bed to go to the bathroom,” says Cindy. “He didn’t understand that he had a catheter.” Again, the iPod helped calm him and keep him at rest.
Terrified that he’d get up in the middle of the night, fall and break his hip, Cindy made sure to charge Ralph’s iPod, place the headphones on his ears and turn on the music before she left his bedside, often at 2:30 in the morning.
“I did it as much for me as I did for him,” she admits. “I couldn’t leave him alone.”
Ralph’s health deteriorated, and he died after a month’s stay in the hospital. That was in November, 2011. “We had the iPod for six months,” says Cindy, who now shares her story with anyone she meets who is dealing with a loved one with Alzheimer’s.
“I tell people, ‘Give them the music.’ Find out what they loved back in the day. Someone with Alzheimer’s, if you leave them to it, they’ll go into a black hole,” she says. “This isn’t another freakin’ medication. You simply put a headset on them. You put that music on, you see the connections being made. You see life in them. It’s undeniable.
“The only bad thing about the iPod?” she adds. “I didn’t have it sooner.”
Need help bringing personalized music to your loved one living with Alzheimer’s or dementia? Please download Music & Memory’s free guide, How to Create a Personalized Playlist for Your Elder at Home.
Founded in 2010, Music & Memory is a non-profit organization that brings personalized music into the lives of the elderly or infirm through digital music technology, vastly improving quality of life.