Jean: A Musical Memory

MOZARTMusic has had a marked impact on the life of many of my clients with learning disabilities.  I particularly remember one lady, who was referred to me because, although she was forty- four, she had never spoken.  However, staff in her residential home believed that Jean understood most of what was said to her.  One of seven children, she was small and dark haired with pronounced scoliosis of the spine which affected her mobility.  Jean lived in a residential care home with five other men and women of similar age and ability. Her favourite occupation was brushing the hair of a resident or member of staff, whether they liked it or not.  Communication consisted of gestures and pointing to make her wishes known or if not understood, she would pull a member of staff towards the desired object . A wave of the hand meant she was either tired or going outside.  Jean  screamed and threw objects to gain attention or when frustrated. Somewhat disconcertingly, she had a permanent smile on her face which belied her mischievous intentions and confused those around her.  There was little family contact, primarily because of their discomfort in not being able to make sense of Jean’s communication.

On my initial visit to see Jean, the radio in the kitchen was tuned into a popular station because overwrought staff had made the assumption that their preferred choice of music was also that of the residents.  In the sitting room, the television was switched on, providing a constant drone of  background voices, peppered with  repetitive advertisements.  At the time of my visit, there was only one CD player for communal use.  The CD player was placed in the sitting room and because residents did not have their own personal CD players, there was little opportunity to discover  musical preferences.

If an adult or child has no speech, assumptions are often made about their lack of ability to make appropriate decisions and choices. Over the years, I have learnt  that offering a choice of music to listen to, has proved to be a remarkable healing agent.  Music effectively and painlessly releases memories of negative past experience. There is now evidential proof that melodic music relaxes and opens up the receptors in the brain to aid communication. With this in mind, I decided to offer a variety of musical choices to determine Jean’s preferences in the hope of eliciting a communicative response.

My initial idea was to ask Jean’s carers to contact her family, who were of Irish origin, to ask for Irish favourites in an attempt to re awaken positive musical memories from Jean’s earlier years at home. However, while this request was in process, I decided to take some Mozart on my next visit. This was not a random choice because I have found that  Mozart’s music is particularly beneficial for those whose  behaviour is deemed inappropriate and challenging . The high frequency vibration of Mozart’s musical notes, aligns the brain waves to stabilise emotional responses and aid relaxation.

However, when I arrived that particular afternoon, there was pandemonium in the sitting room because Jean, in mischievous mood, was taunting Len, one of the other male residents, by roughly brushing his tousled hair. He shouted in protest, rocking to and fro, cross-legged on the floor. An older man with Down’s Syndrome, who I knew to be terminally ill and in obvious discomfort, lay on a reclining chair at one side of the room moaning quietly to himself. Mary, another resident was pacing the floor in agitation, chuntering noisily and gesticulating wildly.

Meanwhile, the  staff, relieved at my arrival, had hurriedly escaped to the kitchen for a cup of tea and a moment’s respite

When I entered the room, Jean  immediately focused on the Mozart CD I was holding.  She turned her attention from Len, dropping the hair brush as she tried to pull the CD out of my hand. I firmly resisted her attempts and told her that I had bought some music for her and the others to listen to. I turned off the television, found the CD player and put on the CD, adjusting the volume before going in search of staff to gain a progress update.  After only seconds, Mozart’s melodious music could be heard wafting through the house. It soon became apparent, however, that apart from the music, there were no other accompanying  voices emanating from the sitting room and I went with staff to investigate.

ISADORA-DUNCANWhat a wonderful sight met our eyes! Jean and Len were lying on the floor side by side with arms out stretched, eyes closed in blissful surrender to the music.  Mary, who minutes earlier had been pacing in agitated fashion, was now giving a very good impression of Isadora Duncan, as she moving silently to the accompanying piano and violins with exaggerated arm movements and sweeping balletic poses.

The poor man who had seemed in discomfort and pain, was peacefully and soundly asleep in his reclining chair.

There was an immediate and positive outcome to this story, which I would not have anticipated but which delighted me. I attended a follow up staff meeting, where the decision was made to give each  resident their own CD player to keep in their room for their preferred musical choice. I was happily tasked with discovering each resident’s musical preference. Jean’s favourite was Mozart which was routinely played in the house at night before bed to calm everyone down before sleep.

 Teaching manuals  and  website pages relating to my work with adults and toning are now available as free downloads at the Living Memory Research Trust.   Blogs document client stories and demonstrate how my therapeutic methods can be adapted to specific client groups

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