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A son uses music to connect with his mother who suffers from Alzheimer's

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today is World Alzheimer's Day. Every 67 seconds, someone in America is diagnosed with this form of dementia. As researchers have tried to better understand the disease, they have found that musical memory can stay with patients long after other memories have faded away. NPR's Dustin Jones brings us a story about a mother and son who have been able to connect through music even after she's lived with the disease for 18 years.

DUSTIN JONES, BYLINE: In 2005, Adam Kaye was hosting a family barbecue at his home in Delmar, Calif., when his mother, Marti Kaye, first broke the news. At 71, she was becoming forgetful. Marti would be working in the kitchen and suddenly forget what she was doing. She had a hard time remembering names and started calling everyone darling to avoid the problem.

ADAM KAYE: And it was very uncommon for me to see my mother cry. But she said, I have Alzheimer's disease, and she said that as she was choking back tears.

JONES: Making the most of what time Marti had left, Adam and his family rallied around Marti every Sunday. But when her husband, Peter, died of cancer in 2015, Marti had to move in with professional caregivers. Determined to support his mother, Adam continued to see Marti every Sunday, and instead of barbecuing for her, he would break out his guitar.

A KAYE: (Playing guitar).

MARTI KAYE: (Laughter).

JONES: As a lifelong musician, Adam has always enjoyed playing guitar for Marti. She often joined in, singing along with her son at family gatherings. And even though Alzheimer's has taken away Marti's ability to sing, she can still recall the music. She whistles along as Adam plays some of her favorites from the Great American Songbook - songs like "And I Love Her" by John Lennon and Paul McCartney...

A KAYE: (Playing guitar).

JONES: ...And "Django" by jazz legend John Lewis.

A KAYE: (Playing guitar).

JONES: Adam says Alzheimer's has crushed Marti's memory, but the music remains.

A KAYE: At this stage, she cannot form a word. But somehow, the pathway to musical melodies remains clear, and it is along this pathway that she and I are able to communicate.

(Playing guitar).

CARMELA ABRAHAM: In the beginning, it is very sad for the patient because they realize that they don't have the same memory that they had before.

JONES: That's Dr. Carmela Abraham, a professor at Boston University School of Medicine, where she has studied Alzheimer's for more than 30 years. She calls the disease heartbreaking.

ABRAHAM: But after a while, they don't suffer anymore. They have no pain, and they just don't know what's going on. They don't recognize their family members, their loved ones. So they really don't suffer. They can live like this 10 to 15 years. And the suffering, which is both emotional and financial, is on the family.

JONES: As the disease progresses, people struggle with short-term memory loss, then the long-term memories. And eventually they lose the ability to talk. But the parts of the brain affected by music are some of the very last to go, which is why Marti can still whistle and hum along when Adam plays for her.

A KAYE: Go again?

M KAYE: (Inaudible).

A KAYE: (Playing guitar).

JONES: Marti is 89 now. She spends almost all of her time in her wheelchair or in bed. She needs help from her caretakers to perform the activities of daily living, like getting dressed and using the bathroom. Marti has a blank stare on her face most of the time, seemingly adrift after 18 years of Alzheimer's disease, but her face lights up every time Adam looks at her and plays. It makes him smile, too.

A KAYE: (Playing guitar). Very good (laughter).

It gives me a lift every time. I love my mom so much. I miss her. I miss her great, loving, caring heart, and I miss her ability to think, and I miss her ability to remember. And I miss how sweet and unconditionally loving she always was for me, especially during times when I might not have deserved it.

(Playing guitar, singing) But I can't help...

So it means everything for me to be able to bring her a little bit of joy with my guitar and my visits and playing along together.

(Playing guitar, vocalizing).

JONES: Dustin Jones, NPR News.

A KAYE: (Playing guitar). Great. (Playing guitar). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Dustin Jones
Dustin Jones is a reporter for NPR's digital news desk. He mainly covers breaking news, but enjoys working on long-form narrative pieces.