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Family uses music to connect with mother suffering from dementia

East Bay family brings music therapy to seniors with dementia
East Bay family brings music therapy to seniors with dementia 03:03

EMERYVILLE -- What started as children playing music for their mom in the hopes of keeping her declining memory sharp has blossomed into a regularly held community event in the East Bay. 

The event happens at Watermark by the Bay, an Emeryville senior living facility. Its impact has been profound.

"Singing – I love it, I love it, I love it!" enthused resident Cathy Sousae.

Music is a powerful thing. It can make memories, and sometimes, it can bring back memories. Even for those who struggle to remember, like Cathy, who has dementia.

"I love it when they sing with us," she said.

Her sons William and Jim, along with William's wife Jennifer, show up to sing and play music with her and the community every Thursday.

"When I see her, it just gives me a lot of joy to see her celebrating," William said.

Numerous studies have shown music can help improve mood, behavior, and even cognitive function in some people with dementia. William says he sees that first-hand with his mom. While she struggles with dementia, she doesn't miss a beat with the music – and often remembers all of the lyrics to songs.

"The music language is the language that speaks to her the most. Verbal language less so," he said. "So as her condition has changed, the music has not. She can still remember the words to the old songs. She responds to the music, maybe even more so than she did before."

William says music has become an important way the family can connect with Cathy.

"I feel like I'm connecting with her again," he said. "That's part of the challenge of somebody with dementia; how do you connect with that person? You used to do it verbally. You used to do it through planning and talking about the past and talking about the future. But all of a sudden, those things don't work anymore. They don't have meaning. So it's hard to connect with mom. But the music is clearly a strong connection."

The weekly dose of music initially started as a Sousae family ritual. However over time, more and more memory-care residents started to show up. Now the Sousae family singalong is a community-wide event, full of participants eager to connect.

"There's a book called 'I'm Still Here.' Sometimes, people with dementia – there's a sense that they're not there anymore. That book that I read kind of convinced me that they're still there, and that people are there. I experience everybody there as there and present, and we're having an experience together with this exchange," William said. "My wife and I have noticed that even people who can't sing the words, they're tapping, they're participating, they're responding."

Even with those who you love the most, it can be hard to find ways to connect when that person has dementia. But through their shared love of music, the Sousae family has found a way to bridge that gap.

"It's just a great way to communicate with mom," William said. "There are some things through dementia that you lose. There are some things I've seen in her that she gains. Her appreciation for music and dancing has increased. In that sense, she's growing in her love and enjoyment of life with the music and dancing. So what does it mean? It means everything."

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