Wednesday, February 15th, 2012
By Stephen Woodfin
I tuned in to see Glen Campbell receive a lifetime achievement award on the Grammys Sunday evening. I did not know I was about to witness a phenomenon scientists who study Alzheimer’s are struggling to understand.
The Country Music Association (CMA) bestowed a similar honor on Campbell a few months ago, but the Grammys handled the situation differently, they let Campbell perform.
After The Band Perry’s rendition of Gentle on My Mind and Blake Shelton’s version of Southern Nights (two of Campbell’s biggest hits), the camera caught Campbell as he marched on stage, microphone in hand.
The band struck up Rhinestone Cowboy, and Glen Campbell was back, back from Alzheimer’s.
He connected with the crowd, cut up in his inimitable style, sang all the verses in his classic delivery.
When the music died, and the lights dimmed, before the sound crew killed his mike, the crowd heard Campbell’s voice. “Where do I go? Or do I just need to quit talking?” He was still under the spell of the music, wandering slowly back to the netherworld where he now spends his time.
I don’t know what a day in Glen Campbell’s life is like. But from watching my mother’s ten-year struggle with Alzheimer’s I think have a pretty good idea. The person with Alzheimer’s slides down a slippery slope, growing a little worse every day, forgetting a few more precious things. Cogent moments come less frequently, then not at all.
What scientists yet do not understand is how music breaks the progression of the disease, enabling a person to step outside it, if only for a matter of minutes.
Sunday night was about the music, one of the few things that can break the iron grip of Alzheimer’s. Research is just now catching up to what many caregivers already know. If they want to see the light return to the eyes of their loved one who has Alzheimer’s, they turn up the music.
Around the country, doctors and therapists have begun to experiment with art and music in the treatment of their patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. At Cognitive Dynamics Foundation in Tuscaloosa, AL, Daniel Potts, M.D., and his wife Ellen Woodward Potts, co-authors of A Pocket Guide for the Alzheimer’s Caregiver, use art therapy to draw out the inner person who still resides within a person with Alzheimer’s. Dr. Potts’ father became an accomplished water-color artist after his diagnosis with AD. In Rochester, NY, G. Allen Power, M.D., plays guitar and leads sing-a-longs for Alzheimer’s groups to accomplish the same thing.
Campbell’s performance last night was an opportunity for audiences around the world to catch the vision of the freeing power of music. Note that I didn’t say the healing power of music. There are settings where music helps heal a person. Alzheimer’s is not one of those. Rather, music can offer a person with Alzheimer’s a brief parole from his prison, a temporary respite. When the last chord fades, the person must take the bus back to the penitentiary.
In recent days, I have seen several reports about drugs that give great promise towards a cure for Alzheimer’s. My heart leaps each time I hear such a report, but the truth of the matter is that a cure is still a long-time coming, and it won’t result from one lone medical breakthrough. Because Alzheimer’s is not a one-size-fits-all disease, researchers will not find a silver bullet. One remedy will work for a particular group of persons with the disease, but not for another. It will take a concerted world-wide effort to beat Alzheimer’s. I hope I live to see the day when it is relegated to the ash heap of history.
Meanwhile, I will treasure moments like Sunday night, when for just a few moments, for the time it took to sing a song, Glen Campbell, a person with Alzheimer’s, was able to rise above the disease and strut his stuff.
(Stephen Woodfin, an attorney/author, blogs about Alzheimer’s disease and other things on Venture Galleries, and is the author of THE SICKLE’S COMPASS, A STORY OF LOVE, WAR AND ALZHEIMER’S)