Horne: Music engaging for seniors

Musical memories may trigger joy or may sometimes trigger sorrow, but they facilitate emotional release.

I’ve always loved singing. When I was eight, I began to teach myself to play the piano.

We had a bench full of books from my mom’s childhood teaching the basics of learning the notes and fingering.

For some reason, I felt that playing the piano was a necessary component to creating music with my voice. It did not take me long to learn, as I spent most days after school down in our basement where the piano stood, practicing and practicing.

Within a year, I was able to play an old songbook from the 1930s.

It did seem as though I must have spent a lifetime as a blues lounge singer, because these songs were not ones you would think that a nine-year-old girl would have such an affinity to and with such a deep emotional connection.

The effect that music has on our brains has in recent years been more carefully scrutinized.

Daniel Levitin’s book, “This Is Your Brain on Music,” is a fascinating look at the science behind what makes music and memories a synchronized symphony of connection that defies logic.

He writes: “The story of your brain on music is the story of an exquisite orchestration of brain regions, involving both the oldest and newest parts of the human brain, and regions as far apart as the cerebellum in the back of the head and the frontal lobes just behind your eyes.

“It involves a precision choreography of neurochemical release and uptake between logical prediction systems and emotional reward systems. When we love a piece of music, it reminds us of other music we have heard, and it activates memory traces of emotional times in our lives. Your brain on music is all about connections.”

We all need to feel emotions to stay engaged with the joy of living.

We need to remember the times when joining with others and experiencing the laughter, the tears, the highs and the lows of our relationships produced a kaleidoscope of memories, creating our own world of imagination and wonder on an ever evolving continuum.

Musical memories of songs that we loved, particularly in the emotionally charged teenage years, stay preserved in an area of our brain called the amygdala, and the emotions attached to these favourite tunes have been shown to remain embedded in our consciousness, even as various forms of dementia may begin to ravage the workings of the brain.

The words to these old tunes come easily and effortlessly, despite the fact that someone perhaps is not even able to remember what was just eaten off a plate of food.

This is why it is so important to keep older adults singing to help them feel alive, connected and able to relive those experiences of the past by triggering the neuronal circuits in the brain that are entwined with musical memory.

These memories may trigger joy or may sometimes trigger sorrow, but they facilitate emotional release and this opens the heart again to feel love and connection.

I watched this phenomenon unfold as I was caring for my mom as she lost her sight completely and then her very sharp cognitive capacity only in the last eight months of her life.

She had always loved music, especially listening to the tunes of Elvis Presley. There were many evenings in my youth that we all danced around the kitchen, myself, mom and my three sisters singing with Elvis, hips gyrating and voices crooning, as we did our nightly chore of washing and drying the dishes.

What fun we had. I suppose that is why I felt a real miracle unfolded a couple of months before my mom passed away.

She was in Hospice House here in Kelowna and unable to see, to stand, to hear well or to remember things from moment to moment.

Dementia had developed quite suddenly after a number of small strokes and she could no longer recite off the Vancouver Canucks game scores with a precision that thrilled us all only a few months before.

As a family, we had slowly adjusted to this change, but we all felt the sadness of seeing her lose so much of who she once was.

One afternoon in the lounge, a volunteer was playing the grand piano and we had pushed mom up beside her to listen.

We told the volunteer that mom used to play the piano well but had not done so for years.

The volunteer shifted mom closer in her Geri-chair and put her right hand on the piano keys.

To all of our amazement, she gently began to stretch her fingers over the keys, feeling her way as she began to play one of her favourite Elvis tunes, Are You Lonesome Tonight.

As the song echoed softly throughout the room, the volunteer joined with her to play the lower hand keys and like magic mom’s hand touched on every note correctly. It was a breathtaking moment for everyone present and at the end of the song, my mom just bowed her head and smiled, feeling the joy of what she had just done.

Following her death, I decided to become involved in a local foundation called Sing For Your Life, that creates opportunities for seniors to keep singing through the offering of free facilitated Silver Song Groups in our community (see story Singing for Seniors).

These programs show amazing results in improving wellness outcomes for seniors, simply through the pleasure of singing.

Raising funds to continue this astounding effort is crucial and we are holding a major fundraising event on Oct. 16 at the Mission Hall called the Stayin Alive Dance Party to do so.

We need your support and I ask you to visit the Stayin Alive Dance Party Facebook page to learn more and then purchase your tickets at EventBrite or by calling 250-860-5408. Singing and music really does make everything better, so please come and join us.