From Big Band to Skynyrd, Music and Memory helps family fight dementia

Sep 4, 2018

Seeing a loved one battle dementia can be a devastating experience. 92-year old veteran and former musician Richard Blas currently participates in a program called Music and Memory at the GreenFields Continuing Care Community in Buffalo. Listening to some of his musical favorites helps him connect with his family.

Cathy Wojcik (daughter) and Christopher Wojcik (grandson) with 92-year old Richard Blas
Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO

Richard Blas played clarinet while in the Air Force. After finishing his active duty, he lived most of his life in Cheektowaga and eventually taught his grandson, Christopher Wojcik, how to play.

“I think for two to three years I would be anxious to go to his house,” said Richard. “Just to listen and to see what progress he made. He’s quite an accomplished musician.”

Christopher, who used to watch his grandfather play in big bands, now plays for the Army.

“He would always play big band charts when I was always over at his house,” said Christopher. “He had this little keyboard. I would pluck on it all the time when I’m over there.”

Music and Memory is a program used throughout the United States and Canada that helps dementia patients by playing music they are familiar with. Participants usually become happier and more social.

Activity Director Mary Beth Mego said GreenFields Continuing Care Community has been using it for about two and a half years now.

“The premise is, is if you play the type of music that they were familiar with in earlier times, you can ask them short yes or no questions,” said Mego. “Previously they wouldn’t be able to communicate but the music unlocks the door to their brain and they’re able to talk and answer questions and communicate.”

Music and Memory has become known for using noise cancelling headphones with dementia patients. Mego said they do things a little differently.

“We do not use them, she said. “The people that live here do not like earphones. We usually play it for the whole group or residents play it in their rooms.”

Richard’s daughter Cathy Wojcik said she’s doing something she never used to do-- sing in public with her father.

“Me and him just kind of sing together. I don’t care who hears me or how bad I sound. We’re having fun and then that tune sticks in my head all day and I can’t stand it,” Cathy said.

One of her favorites is Stardust.

“You both are singing and sometimes people will join in,” said Mego, “and then they’ll be singing and Richard and his daughter will be off on to another unit, but the people are then singing the song they were singing.”

Cathy puts CD’s on most times she comes to visit.

“It definitely makes him in a better mood,” said Cathy. “Especially if somebody sings along or I might just start something when he’s miserable and all of a sudden he’ll kick in.”

Richard still picks up the Clarinet every once and a while and maintains his sense of humor, with the help of his grandson.

“I noticed his embouchure,” said Christopher, “even though he hasn’t played in what?”

“A thousand years,” Richard replied and laughed.

“Yeah a thousand years… I think it’s been nine years since you gave it up,” said Christopher. “After playing for 70-something years of doing all this music, I think it’s still ingrained in you.”

Richard has trouble now playing more than a few notes due to his arthritis, but his tone still holds up well.

“He still remembers how to play,” said Christopher.

Richard cut him off, “You are a young man and I am an old man. 92-years old. I still remember music, but to a background. To hear (Christopher) play, even if he’s playing simple chords… hey, this is quality music.”

Christopher has been in the Army for 10 years and is currently stationed at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. He makes a 12-hour drive to visit his grandfather.

When deployed, he said listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd would calm him when he felt homesick.

“In general for me, I think music is like a natural drug. It helps you to straighten out your brain and calm you down,” he said.

Dent Neurologic Institute Physician Erica Colligan said music is broadly distributed throughout the brain.

“Your auditory cortex is involved when you’re listening. You’re limbic system, which is your emotional aspect of the brain is lit up, when you are listening to music as well. Additionally, people tap their feet, they move to music, so the motor areas are active as well,” said Colligan. “This is great, because with people with dementia, they’re losing a lot of the memory parts of their brain. But the rest of the brain is relatively functional until the later stages. So even if they can’t remember things as well as they used to, they can still appreciate the music, especially from their youth.”

Colligan said there isn’t any evidence currently that indicates music prevents the decline of dementia, but there is evidence showing people who listen to music in the nursing home setting are often less agitated than they previously were.

“It can be fairly stressful to be a person who has dementia. You’re isolated,” said Colligan. “You are not able to interact with the world the way you used to. People react to this in different ways. They get very stressed. They start yelling. They are combative and punching people. That is no good for anybody.”

There are also physical health benefits.

“Often times, we will put these patients on medication to try and prevent their behavioral outbursts. But the medications are not good for the people either,” said Colligan. “They have side effects, they can be dangerous. Some of them can cause death. These are not good options. We want a non-medication option and music is a great option.”

For Christopher, music has created a connection with his grandfather that has withstood his current stage of dementia.

“The bond that him and I have,” said Christopher as Richard spoke up, “Brings tears to my eyes.”  

“I made CD’s for (Richard),” said Christopher as he turned to his grandfather. “Every time you used to turn it on, you would just listen to it. His eyes lit up. Is that you playing? And I’m like yeah.”

“When we get together, we don’t always talk music, but we do get to it,” Richard said. “I’m always anxious to hear how he’s progressing.”