During Parkinson’s Awareness Month in April, it’s more important than ever to understand the power of music on slowing neurological diseases.
Every time Laura Kienscherf heard music, she couldn’t help but dance, sing or hum along.
Kienscherf was diagnosed with dementia, and although she battled the progressive neurological disease daily, music would bring her pure joy.
“She was so happy,” said son Daryn Kienscherf, 55, of Royal Oak, recalling his mother’s reaction to music. “It put her back in time to a place where life was simpler, and she wasn’t in pain.”
Laura, who passed away at the age of 89 in January, grew up taking dance lessons. Frank Sinatra was her favorite artist and the crooner’s song “It Had to Be You” was one that stuck with her for life. Even on bad days, Daryn says his mother would bring up the song, either by humming the tune or saying the words, “It had to be you.”
Like many with progressive neurological illnesses, Laura felt the numerous benefits that music brought to her life. Individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, Parkinson’s disease, strokes and more have experienced the incredible impact that music can have on the brain. Now, during Parkinson’s Awareness Month in April, it’s more important than ever to understand the power of music on slowing neurological diseases.
Improving Mental Activity
Music can trigger temporary recollections in memory, an important tool for those with dementia suffering devastating memory loss. It also has the power to activate and sometimes even improve auditory, cognitive, motor and emotional functions that neurological diseases can affect. More and more research is coming out that defines music as a crucial tool in helping individuals like Laura rehabilitate or slow down symptoms.
It’s also an essential coping or soothing mechanism that serves as a form of comfort when words may fail. Daryn Kienscherf recalls when his mother needed eye surgery to remove Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare type of skin cancer that had grown beneath her eye. For this procedure, she was sedated but awake. The whole time, Laura was humming and singing.
Her nurse and surgeon believed she was using music to distract herself from the discomfort. Music can cause psychological changes in mood that can generate relaxation and focus. It can even steady heart rate and breathing, both of which help keep people calm during stressful situations. While music carried Laura through dementia, others benefit in different ways.
Music and Mobility
In Parkinson’s disease, for example, music has been found to support and preserve functional mobility, which is directly attacked by the illness. For those with aphasia, a loss or impairment of language through brain injury such as a stroke, it’s not uncommon for people to be able to sing, even though they might not be able to speak. This is because processing of speech and song occur in different areas of the brain, so when the words don’t come, music can take their place.
Yet it’s not just music alone that can benefit people who have neurological diseases — singing, dancing, playing, listening to and composing music all have the same positive power. Even though Laura had a walker and often needed support in moving, she would find every reason to dance. Whether she attended a live musical performance with the help of her son Daryn and his wife, Susan Davis-Kienscherf, or she was resting at home, Laura was constantly moving. She would dance in her chair and enjoyed listening to music anywhere she could.
Even when her mother-in-law needed to be moved from her chair to her bed, Susan recalls those brief 20 seconds when Laura’s feet would hit the floor. “She would do a little bit of dancing,” she says. Ironically, Daryn says his mother was never much of a singer — just a dancer — but she began to sing after she developed dementia. It wasn’t always a song she was hearing, but if Laura sang, regardless of the tune, a smile would spread across her face.
Laura was a regular attendee of the Dorothy and Peter Brown Jewish Community Adult Day Program, a partnership between Jewish Senior Life and JVS Human Services that supports Jewish individuals living with dementia and their families.
In fact, she was such a regular that Laura had her own area with a red velvet rope where she could dance, Daryn recalls. Because music was a key element of the program, Laura found solace and connection as soon as the tunes hit.
Julie Verriest, manager of senior adult services at JVS and a licensed music therapist, says music promotes many parts of the brain to interact. “It’s a great way to build neural connections and helps people maintain the skills that they have,” she explains. “Research has shown that music decreases agitation, helps people maintain language skills and increases social interaction.”
A Mood Booster
For individuals with neurological illness, which can be isolating and lonely, music is a way to reconnect with the past and to also form connections in the present. Plus, it’s a proven mood-booster. “Just listening to music can be relaxing,” Verriest says. “Singing also increases the oxygen to your brain and throughout your body.”
Verriest witnessed firsthand how powerful music was for Laura — and many others in the Jewish community — who participated in the program, particularly in music sessions, which included live performances and chair exercises. “Dancing was a joy for Laura,” Verriest recalls. “It was helping keep her body in shape and it was such an important part of her identity.”
For Laura, who met her husband, Gary Kienscherf, a German man who didn’t speak English at the time, while dancing together, music could transport her to her most cherished moments in life. Even through her very last days, Laura continued to respond to concerts held at the Brown Program by local musician and songwriter Michael Krieger. Her son Daryn noted that they were one of the only things she would respond to as she declined from dementia.
When the Brown Program closed last March due to COVID-19, the speed of Laura’s decline increased sharply. To her family, it was a clear sign how much music and the program were vital in slowing the speed of her brain change. “Music was cathartic for her when she was having bad moments,” Daryn says. She was even nicknamed “Dancing Laura” because of her passion for it.
“I just think the more your brain is stimulated through music, the more it starts to improve other areas,” Verriest says. “As the brain changes during dementia, some parts stay intact longer than others. Long-term memories, for instance, stay intact longer than short-term memories.”
Music, she explains, often falls into long-term memories. “If it’s used intentionally,” Verriest says, “music can really help maintain the parts of the brain that are intact.”