A local musician uses the power of song to lead Alzheimer's patients back in time.
The memories, when they come, dart through his mind like hummingbirds, swift and elusive. Most days, he can't remember that he left school in the 10th grade to build a house for his mother, that he served in the U.S. Army for 22 years, that he once spoke Japanese and French and Spanish. Most days, he sits quietly, his light, cloudy eyes focused on something only he can see.
So Alzen Floyd Sr.'s son and daughter in-law sat him gently in a chair, facing music therapist Tom Dalton's laptop. "I've got a little something to show you," Dalton told him, clicking on play. A photo of Floyd, now 87, looking young and charming, smoking a pipe showed on the screen. "Oh, wow, Daddy, Look! exclaimed Denise Floyd, squeezing his arm. "Isn't that wonderful?" Then the music, a wistful guitar introduction leading into Dalton singing: "I was born in 1919 in a Florida town named Branford, Then the family moved to Waycross, Georgia." "I made some roots in Fort Lauderdale, I called it Fort Licquordale, that's the place I've always called my home." "I left school in the 10th grade to build my mother's house, and I lived there 'til six years ago..."
Accompanying each line were black and white family photos -- Floyd as a plump, smiling baby, Floyd with his brothers and sisters, the house he built in Fort Lauderdale. His face was neutral, registering little expression. Denise and her husband, Alzen Floyd Jr., exclaimed and pointed out the photos. "Remember that, Daddy?" When a photo of him in Army fatigues, crouched in the bushes with a camera, came onscreen, the corners of his mouth twitched briefly.
And that is enough. That is enough and that is part of the purpose of Alzheimer's Community Care's Music Therapy Program. For the last several months, clients of the program and their family members, work with Dalton over six to eight weeks, telling him things about their lives when they can remember them. From a patchwork of memories, Dalton, the patients and the families collaborate together to write song lyrics and create music to lay under them. With enough family photos, it is the beginning portrait of a life, one now give way to the vagaries of a fluctuating mind. Music, Dalton explained is so often tied to memory. Because of the way it is processed, it engages both the left and right sides of the brain and aids memory recall, he said. And it is evocative, because sometimes a certain song will take a listener back to a specific moment in time and bring back the sounds, smells and feelings of that moment.
So Dalton uses music to start people with Alzheimer's telling stories. "Tell me about yourself" - that's an almost impossible question for them to answer." Dalton said. "But there are songs that might trigger experiences. I might play "New York, New York," and they'll brighten up or start singing along, so I'll ask, Tell me about a time you had fun in New York." Sometimes, as in the case of Floyd, the people with whom Dalton works are not verbal, "but when we were working together, he would get teary-eyed and hold my hand."
Dalton also involves people's families in the creation of a song, as a way to recognize their concerns and hard work as caregivers. When Dalton recorded Floyd's song, Alzen Floyd Jr. harmonized on the chorus: "The Carrier of the Family, a father and a friend, I hope you know how much you mean to me." "This is hard for us, and I know it's hard for him, his son explained. First, more than a dozen years ago, Floyd starting getting forgetful. he was living with his sister in Fort Lauderdale, in the house he built for his mother. "She had diabetes, so he lent her strength, " Denise said. "He was forgetful, she lent him strength." When she died six years ago, Floyd's son brought him to West Palm Beach to live with his family. It has been, his son said, a blessing to have him near and a burden to see what Alzheimer's has stolen from him. Rarely can he remember his longtime business, Floyd's Photo Service on Northwest 13th Street in Fort Lauderdale, next door to his sister's beauty salon. He's forgotten the Korean War, in which he served, and how he worked the cash register at his father's restaurant, Al Floyd's Soul Food. The memories flit away like butterflies before he can catch them. The music and the photos might help. "It's a validation and a celebration of the life they've lived." said Joan Reedy, a development associate for Alzheimer's Community Care, about the grant-funded music therapy program. "It's a celebration that they still are incredible human beings." I't enough, she said, that the music can elevate their mood, even if it doesn't summon memories.
Depression is common in the end stages of Alzheimer's. Dalton also does weekly music therapy groups with clients in the day-care program, which includes Floyd, singing old, familiar songs that sometimes trigger memories and stories. "Music hath charms, " William Congreve wrote, "to soothe the savage beast." Sometimes, though, it's effects are quieter, gentler. Sometimes it has charms to help an old man remember, if only briefly, the richness of his life.