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When memory misses a beat, music can offer dementia patients new meaning

February 23, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
Special correspondent Judy Muller reports on a band of musicians who also have Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and dementia. They use music to stay active, socially connected and to find new purpose.

Editor’s note: The NewsHour incorrectly identified one of the men in this story. His name is Irwin Rosenstein, not Ira Rosenstein. We regret the error and apologize to Mr. Rosenstein and his family.

GWEN IFILL: Last night’s Oscars also cast a light on the devastating impact of Alzheimer’s. Julianne Moore won best actress for her portrayal of a linguistics professor dealing with its early onset in “Still Alice,” and country singer Glen Campbell was honored with a performance by Tim McGraw of his song “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.” His battle with the disease is the focus of one of the nominated documentaries.

Special correspondent Judy Muller has been exploring how music can provide help for people suffering from several forms of dementia.

Here’s her report.

JUDY MULLER: Paul Livadary has been playing the piano since he was 4 years old. Now in his ’70s, he can still remember all his favorite tunes, like “Fly Me to the Moon.”

PAUL LIVADARY: It’s a place where memory doesn’t have any effect on me. The music just flows, if I want to play whatever I want to play.

JUDY MULLER: But aside from the music, his memory is failing him. Livadary, a retired attorney, learned several years ago that he has Alzheimer’s.

PAUL LIVADARY: Nobody wants to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It was something that wasn’t new to me because my father suffered from it as well.

JUDY MULLER: Paul already has trouble remembering simple things, like the day of the week. So his wife, Marina, starts every day going over their schedule.

MARINA DAY: Today is Monday. At 1:30, we’re going over to Brentwood Presbyterian.

JUDY MULLER: Marina and Paul have found new ways to communicate. And his music is a big part of that.

MARINA DAY: It has always been a part of Paul’s life, but I think it became a language for him. And I think he could express himself emotionally with his music in ways that was satisfying to the deepest parts of himself. And for those who have ears to hear, they hear what he’s saying.

JUDY MULLER: And so Paul and Marina looked around for others who had ears to hear.

PAUL LIVADARY: The unstated part of it is that you need to be around people, and that going into isolation because you’re ashamed or you’re worried that you’re going to be made a fool of, it is not only not fruitful, but it’s silly.

JUDY MULLER: When Marina heard about an unusual group of musicians who get together to jam twice a week, she convinced Paul to give it a try.

They call themselves The Fifth Dementia, a humorous reference to fact that they all suffer, to varying degrees, from dementia, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.

Gene Sterling on the drums is the band’s leader. He has an uncontrollable tremor, until, that is, he picks up those drumsticks.

GENE STERLING: The whole thing is to stay in motion. With the tremor issue in one’s life, it exacerbates itself most distinctly when you’re at rest.

JUDY MULLER: So a drummer is not at rest.

GENE STERLING: That’s right.


JUDY MULLER: Sam Mayo on harmonica is a retired UCLA history professor. His dementia has robbed him of the ability to speak clearly. So when asked to describe in a word what the band means to him, he got some help from Gene.

GENE STERLING: What he has is his sense of freedom. I would say the one word would be freedom.

JUDY MULLER: Freedom?  Do you agree?

SAM MAYO: You’re damn right.

JUDY MULLER: Irwin Rosenstein plays keyboards, where his dementia and Parkinson’s no longer define him.

IRWIN ROSENSTEIN: I have a purpose. I’m not sure what the purpose is. It’s just that having something to do that is valuable is important.

JUDY MULLER: The band was started by Irwin and his wife, Carol, who also founded its parent organization, The Fifth Dementia, she says, has provided an antidote to her husband’s suffering.

CAROL ROSENSTEIN: I think he’s much more alert. He’s much more interesting. His cognition has improved. And we have something great to share. We really were losing a connection, and he was really slipping away. And I can really say that he’s — he’s back again.

JUDY MULLER: The wives and families of these men say the music has made a difference, lowering their depression and raising their energy, and there’s science to support that.

UCLA neurobiologist Marco Iacoboni says playing an instrument involves muscle memory in the brain, which is not impacted by dementia.

DR. MARCO IACOBONI, University of California, Los Angeles: Retrieving all these memories takes practice. You may forget what you have eaten at lunch, but you have not forgotten what you have done for many years and for many hours every week using an instrument to create music. You can’t forget that.

JUDY MULLER: Even more important, he says, is the emotional power of music.

DR. MARCO IACOBONI: All these things are synchronized. So, the multisensory component of music, it’s very rich. It’s even richer than our everyday life experience, because it involves so many different channels of communication, that it creates — I think it’s something that binds together information in the brain and makes it really powerful and more — probably more resilient to damage.

JUDY MULLER: Even so, he cautions that we still have a lot to learn about the brain, so there’s no way to predict how long these men or the band will be able to play music.

But when they do play, no one seems worried about the future. All they care about is the joy of making music, and not just with each other. Once a week, they’re joined by three teenage jazz musicians from the Windward School in West L.A.

JACOB EARLICH: I was, like, blown away when I first came in and heard them playing. Like, they just sound like these professional musicians. And I have learned so much from Gene and from everyone else, just playing with them.

SPENCER LEMANN: When you really get down to it, we’re all — all the same in this way, in this music, this thing that binds us. And, you know, most people who are our age aren’t into that type of music, and we really love it.

JUDY MULLER: It may not be the preferred music of the young, but when The Fifth Dementia played a concert at the school, all the students seemed to love the band’s rendition of “All of Me.”

Carol Rosenstein says music programs around the city are showing interests in starting their own bands with people suffering from dementia.

CAROL ROSENSTEIN: I think we have got something rather magical going on. And the bottom line is, did we have fun?

JUDY MULLER: Paul Livadary echoes the sentiment.

PAUL LIVADARY: I personally describe music these days — and I never did all my musical life — as magic. It — from a — from a dementia perspective, my experience is that it creates life.

JUDY MULLER: But, then, his life with Marina has always been filled with music. He composed this song, “The Scent of Orchids,” for their wedding day. The sheet music still hangs in a frame on their wall.

“Scent of Orchids,” which you played for us, when you play that and she still responds to it, is there still some emotion attached to that?


JUDY MULLER: For both of them, music reaches past memory to a place deeper than memory.

MARINA DAY: It’s like another language, and it’s one that communicates in the present. And that’s pretty much where we live right now.

JUDY MULLER: I’m Judy Muller for the NewsHour in Los Angeles.