Love, Alzheimer’s and Four Physicians

I am compelled to tell the stories of four physicians who dealt with Alzheimer’s Disease within their families in ways that deeply touched me. Their names have been changed to protect their privacy.

Joseph was my parents’ personal physician early in his career. He later left our small town for a prestigious clinic, became a surgeon, and established a large surgery center. At the height of his thriving practice, his wife developed Alzheimer’s Disease. While he could have easily rationalized placing her in a nursing home and marching on with his business and career, he chose to stop and care for her at their home for the last 10 years of her life. When I caught up with him later in his retirement, he gave me the impression that caring for his wife was what he was meant to do. There were no regrets, no second thoughts.

William was in a thriving family practice when his mother-in-law was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. He took two years off to care for his mother-in-law at home, then returned to his practice when his wife retired and was available to care for her mother. I told him, “You have singlehandedly destroyed the power of every mother-in-law joke ever told!” He replied, “I love her and enjoyed my time with her.”

Then there is Jeff, a close friend of mine. We worked together at a VA hospital where he was a surgeon. As he worked into his 70s, he migrated to the geriatric ward where he was a beloved physician to the aging veterans. After his retirement, he and his wife Grace settled into a comfortable home with the city at their front door and the forest at their back door. They travelled, attended the theatre, and spent time with their eight children. Over the years, as Grace began experiencing dementia, Jeff seemed to just take it in stride. It did not stop him from escorting her to plays, baseball games, concerts, and out to dinner. It did not deter him when others advised them, in their 80s, to move to an assisted living facility. It did not occur to him to do anything but care for her at home.

Every summer Jeff, Grace, my wife, and I attended plays at a summer playhouse in a nearby state park. As Grace struggled to grasp the events and to recognize the people around her, Jeff proudly served as her guide, encourager, and memory bank. He patiently answered each question, often the same question numerous times. Sometimes after repeated questions from her, he channeled his frustration by saying, with the genuine passion of a young man talking to his bride, “I love you, Grace!” Then she would flash her gorgeous smile. On another occasion she excitedly announced, “I’m getting married!” Jeff seriously and emphatically let her know that after 68 years together, “Grace, you are married to me and it will stay that way!”

Grace passed away quietly at her home last week, with Jeff and their son Ron, the fourth physician (who, along with his partner Karen, cared for Grace whenever Jeff needed assistance or some alone time) at her side. When we later visited Jeff, he told us how thankful he was that Grace was able to stay in their home and that she had a painless and peaceful death. Then he smiled and added, without one ounce of arrogance, “She had a great husband.” I couldn’t agree more!


How Music Affects Your Life

We hear a lot today about the power of music, but let’s stop and ask the questions, what exactly does music do for you?  And, what evidence is there that music is all that powerful?  Whether you are involved in a drum circle, singing in a choir (or the shower), performing music professionally, tapping along to music on the radio, taking organ lessons, or using music to help other people heal, I believe that you are profoundly influenced by music.

So let’s examine exactly HOW music benefits us, along with some proof of that benefit.  The evidence I offer ranges from the testimony of a Native American Elder to the research results of Contemporary Neuroscientists.  All are worth considering.  What can music making do for you?

  1. Unify You With History and With Each Other.   “Since the beginning of civilization, drums were one of the main universal signals for calling people together in good ways. They were and are  humanity’s common pulse. In other words, drums do not know about race, racism, jealousy, hate, resentment, greed, language, genders, gender choice, human diversity. What they do know is the magic of inclusivity and the joyful sound of one heart beating.”   (Wilwilaask, All my Relations).  When you perform music with other people, you become part of a common rhythm and can celebrate the unity of our diverse human race.
  2. Increase Your Immunity and Cancer-Fighting Capacity.   A study by Barry Bittman, MD and his associates found that one session of therapeutic drumming significantly strengthened the immune system and increased the activity level of cancer-fighting T-cells.(Barry Bittman, MD, et al., 2001,  Alternative Therapies Health Medicine, Vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 38-47).
  3. Improve Your Mood, Reduce Burnout, and Improve Your Genome Functioning.  Dr. Bittman’s research also demonstrated that making music improved moods and reduced burnout in workers and students. The genome is an organism’s complete set of DNA.  All human cells (except for mature red blood cells) contain a complete genome.  According the Dr. Bittman, “The genome is a personal blueprint that serves as the instruction book for our bodies.”  There are 45 genomic markers associated with stress.  They can be viewed as “switches that literally turn on the production of specific biological substances within the body.” His study showed that making music changed 19 of the 45 stress genomes in a positive direction.   (Barry Bittman, MD, et al., 2005, Medical Science Monitor, Vol. 11, No.2, pp. 31-40).
  4. Improve Your Emotions and Thinking Flexibility.  In research that I conducted with Dr. Michael Thaut, we found that one session of music therapy improved mood and flexible thinking.  (Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2009, Vol 1169, pp. 406-416).
  5. Provide a Workout for Your Entire Brain.  Music is not just a right-brain activity, but extensively involves systems throughout the brain, both left and right hemispheres.  (Daniel Levitin, Ph.D. 2006, This is your brain on music:  The science of a human obsession.  New York:  Penguin Books).
  6. Provide Increased Power to Your Brain.  First, music gives immediate stimulation and structure to your brain so that your mental operations can become more reliable and predictable.  Next, music introduces timing, grouping, and synchronization so that your brain can be better organized.  In addition, music stimulates shared or parallel brain systems, so that the part of your brain that is working gets help from other areas.  Your brain becomes super charged to accomplish the task at hand.  Finally, music provides an atmosphere that arouses emotion and motivation.  Music helps you feel good and stimulates the energy you need to follow through (Michael Thaut, Ph.D. [2005]. Rhythm, music, and the brain: Scientific foundations and clinical applications.  New York:  Routledge).

I hope that by now you are convinced that music is powerful, that it can improve your life, and that you can use more music.  Even if you are already making music, consider ways to make it even more powerful for you.  As a musician, I practice piano, trumpet, and voice every day, and perform in public an average of three times a week.  As a clinician, I lead drum circles and other music-related groups an average of twice a week.  However, lately I began enjoying music that is intended just for me.  I look forward to time I spend alone with my drum, creating special rhythms that relax and inspire me.  What aspects of music will make your life even greater?

Next post:  I will share the personal experiment that I have been conducting for the past year to improve my mental abilities.