6 Jan 2018

Music and my dad's dementia

From RNZ Music, 2:20 pm on 6 January 2018

Melissa Hogenboom is a BBC journalist who's spent her career tackling the big questions about human behaviour, including why we lie and why we love.

But her toughest and most personal assignment was her account of her father’s dementia, and the part of his brain that refuses to be affected by this debilitating condition.

Melissa Hogenboom and her father Piet walking down the aisle on her wedding day

Melissa Hogenboom and her father Piet Photo: Melissa Hogenboom

“When anyone listens to music it lights up our whole brain,” says Hogenboom, who investigated the cutting edge of neuroscience on dementia for BBC Future.

She was motivated to write the article after observing her father’s response to music through his worsening dementia.

“When you see someone with dementia, what is so devastating about it is slowly, their independence gets taken away bit by bit,” she says.

“I found it was quite confrontational every time I saw him. I would rather spend time with him in a group than one-on-one because when I was with him there wasn’t much to say.

“It’s really difficult to see someone who was so capable, such a strong, powerful and kind, caring man as someone I have to speak to almost as a child.”

One thing that didn’t change in her father was his love of music. It was something that Melissa’s father always enjoyed and educated his daughter about. She tenderly writes about her father in her article 'The Part of My Dad Dementia Can't Take'.

As dementia took hold of his brain, his family noticed that music retained some parts of him even as his condition became more “drastic”.

This is obvious to see in the candid family video she shared as part of her BBC Future story that captures a moment where Melissa’s father spontaneously bursts into song at the top of his voice in his local supermarket.

So many of us will experience dementia or Alzheimers in some way or another, whether it is friends, relatives or acquaintances.

The video lays bare how people with degenerative brain illnesses lose the ability to understand and adhere to expected social graces and rules.

Hogenboom’s article provided her Dad an important voice as his verbal communication skills no longer allowed him to speak about his dementia.

BBC Future reporter Melissa Hogenboom

BBC Future reporter Melissa Hogenboom Photo: Melissa Hogenboom

“He’s been very open about his condition and wants to spread awareness, he wants people to know it, understand it, learn from it and for it to become part of the conversation because it is an awkward thing to confront.”

Hogenboom and her family experienced this as her father’s condition progressed. He became disoriented and found it hard finding the right chair when asked to sit at the table. He could no longer join in nor follow conversations at family gatherings.

As these activities gradually became too difficult, he began music therapy and was introduced to the harp.

“[Music] really helped him feel like it was something he could own.”

Playing and singing along with the harp helped with the occupational and physical therapy he needed. More importantly Hogenboom observed that music was “really peaceful and relaxing” for her father. He was able to follow commands for actions that would normally be difficult for him.

Dementia and other degenerative neurological conditions vary from person to person depending on which neurons and connections are lost in the brain. This is what stops people from forming new memories and losing functions they previously had.

The World Health Organisation estimates that 50 million people around the world are affected by dementia, with nearly 10 million new cases reported every year.

In New Zealand around 70,000 people have dementia. This number is expected to triple over the next 30 years.

Dementia research is a growing area of interest for scientists, and studies into music and the brain are yielding some exciting results.

Hogenboom explains that current research studies have found that music activates “so many different areas” of the brain and its neural pathways.

Researchers are understanding cognitive responses to music by studying the “changes in blood flow to the brain” and changes in pupil size in people’s eyes when they were played familiar tunes or wrong notes in music.

The studies that Hogenboom reported on showed that music was part of our Procedural Memory, or the part of our brains that did not need to consciously remember and recall.

“It’s the same part you might use when you’re riding a bike,” she explains.  “When you hear music that has become part of you growing up you don’t really think about it, it just comes out.”

For people with dementia or Alzheimers, music bypasses the damaged areas of their brain so they can recall and respond to songs, lyrics and tunes.

Hogenboom says in the future researchers hope to use music as a diagnostic tool for degenerative brain conditions because “changes in the brain occur way earlier than when we see [symptoms].”.

In the case of Melissa’s father, the music therapy or spontaneous singing he enjoyed activated the parts of his brain that were not affected by dementia and this was why he was able to do things he would have otherwise found difficult or distressing.

“I think what is so heartening about knowing this is he still has a passion that he can continue to enjoy.”

Reporting on her family’s experience has also helped her come to terms with her father’s condition.

“[It has] made it easier to accept and to accept him how he is now rather than try to compare it to how he used to be.”

On that point, she shares one important thing from her family’s experience of dementia.

“Enjoy the time that you can still do things, that’s what I would have liked to have done more of.”

Piet Hogenboom died peacefully on 18 September 2019.

Related content:
  • Music helps 'rewire brain' of stroke patients
  • The power of music and memories in cognitive therapy
  • Get the RNZ app

    for easy access to all your favourite programmes