My Grandmother, the Riverboat Pianist

by Raphael Adams

She was a river boat pianist in her youth. There was a picture above her bed that showed a stunning young woman who could have been a silent film star. That was all very hard to imagine as I coerced my kids to visit their 90-something grandmother in the nursing home. She had advanced dementia and very short-term memory. Every 15 seconds, she asked each of my kids what their name was and who that man with them was. My kids and my wife never had the benefit of seeing a fully functioning person. And I never had the benefit of seeing this river boat babe. She was always an old white-haired lady forcing me to learn piano.

There was a very beat-up upright piano in the rec room of the home. Like the residents, the piano had seen better days and had made better sounds. To make it easier on my kids, I decided to distract my grandmother from her repetitive name focus, and I wheeled her downstairs to the rec room. She always loved when I played the one piece on the piano that I remembered from those days. I’m not sure what made me think of it, but after I finished, I sat her in front of the piano and asked her if she would like to play.

I didn’t know what to expect, but what I heard was totally unexpected. She started playing – and playing well or as well as the piano would allow her. She played and played. Throughout the home, people stopped and came into the room to hear her. Her vibrancy and her acuity were miraculous.

From that day on, she played every day. In her room, she was almost vegetative. In front of the piano, I believe she felt she was back on the river boat. She lived past her hundredth birthday and died shortly after she was no longer able to get out of the bed to get to the piano.

This was proof of the life-giving power of music. The implication of this for caregivers and children of seniors is profound. If at all possible, seniors – even those with advanced dementia or other neurological conditions – should be sung to constantly. Families should let caregivers know what a senior’s favorite songs or melodies are, so that they can sing to them and maybe even along with them. At the very least, if the caregiver is shy or tonally challenged, they should be encouraged to play recorded music for their clients.

There has been much research on why this happens and there’s a fascinating article in our Qualicare Homecare Library that highlights this. In case you think I’m exaggerating, there’s a viral YouTube video about an institutionalized senior ‘waking up’ when he’s given some Cab Calloway music to listen to. It shows almost the same situation as my grandmother except this person is simply listening to music. It’s very hard to watch without getting teary-eyed.

Music helps us be happy and it has the power to draw people together. Throughout our Qualicare franchise system, we’ve found that the caregivers who sing and use music develop closer relationships with both clients and their families. This is just one of the eye-opening and heart-warming experiences you can have running a homecare franchise.

This article was originally published in Franchise Business Review.