Despite the manifest ravages of Alzheimer's—his loss of event memory and of general knowledge, his disorientation, his cognitive problems—Woody's gentle and polite disposition, it seemed, was ingrained at a much deeper level, and he chatted with me amiably. Soon, however, he tired of my questions, which he was unable to answer—simple ones such as "Can you read this?" or "Where were you born?" So I asked him to sing.
Mary Ellen had told me how, ever since she could remember, the whole family—Woody, Rosemary, and their three daughters—had sung together, and how singing had always been a central part of family life. I asked Woody to sing "Somewhere over the Rainbow," and Rosemary and Mary Ellen soon joined in. The three of them sang beautifully, each harmonizing in different ways, and Woody showed all the expressions, emotions, and postures appropriate to the song, and to singing in a group (turning to the others, awaiting their cues, and so on). This was so with all the songs they sang—whether exuberant, jazzy, lyrical and romantic, funny, or sad. The songs seemed to engage him totally.
Woody's musicality, like his civility and equanimity, was completely intact. Indeed, he seemed so whole, so "normal" when singing that his disorientation, his confusion, when he was not singing came as something of a shock.
For Woody, who can no longer even dress himself, the act of singing is immensely important. Remembering (each time, in some sense, anew) that he can sing is profoundly reassuring to him. It is a skill he has not lost, and it can stimulate his feelings, his imagination, his humor, and his sense of identity as nothing else can. It can enliven him, calm him, focus and engage him. It can give him back himself, and not least, it can charm others, arouse their amazement and admiration—reactions increasingly necessary to someone who, in his lucid moments, is painfully aware of his tragic disease and sometimes says that he feels "broken inside."
Such effects—improvements of mood, behavior, even cognitive function—once set off by music can sometimes persist for hours or even days in people with dementia. Researchers are only beginning to study the secrets of why and how this happens; for now, we simply know, from patients like Woody, that music is a powerful therapy for those with nearly any kind of neurological problem. Music is much more than a beautiful luxury: It is a fundamental way of expressing our humanity—and it is often our best medicine.
So this holiday season, I will surround myself with as much music as possible. I will remember and sing the Hanukkah songs I grew up with, I will listen to Bach's Christmas Oratorio, and I will go with friends to Carnegie Hall to hear Handel's Messiah sung by the heavenly St. Cecilia Chorus. And I will spend plenty of time practicing the piano, because, after a gap of 60 years, I have just started taking lessons again.