There is an incredible vignette from HBO’s 2009 documentary series The Alzheimer’s Project that speaks to how powerful music can be as a communication tool for those living with dementia.
The segment—part of the project’s Memory Loss Tapes—follows Woody, a man living in an assisted living community designed for those suffering from memory impairment. As Woody wanders throughout the community he now calls home, he is friendly to everyone he encounters, but clearly is confused about his surroundings and appears unable to carry on any real conversation. Suddenly his wife and daughter arrive, taking him on a dinnertime excursion outside of the building.
Woody and his family arrive at their destination: a gathering of “the Grunyons,” an a cappella group Woody was a member of for decades. Soon, Woody is trotted out onto stage to perform with the group. Despite being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease 14 years prior, he is tasked with a complex solo. In an incredible few moments of clarity, Woody stuns the audience with a near perfect rendition.
While “Woody’s Song” is a dramatic example of how dementia sufferers can retain music and melodies several years after diagnosis, his story illustrates just how powerful a tool music can be for family caregivers searching for ways to better connect with their loved ones.