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A son reflects on his father's loss of all musical appreciation to Alzheimer's

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Saturday, January 13, 2018 – Page O8

The needle dropped on side two of More Music From Peter Gunn, scratching into play with a tough, brass crescendo on Blue Steel.

That second LP of Henry Mancini's popular jazz score came out when my father was 20, that magic age when musical tastes awaken into their adult fullness.

Years later, he must have had a hard time, whenever he played the record, not raising his eyebrows with an "aha!"

look of recognition, and pointing out the low register trombone and French horn counterpoint he loved.

Or stopping himself from picking apart the Nelson Riddle arrangements on This Is Sinatra! I know because I do the same with my children. It makes my father's loss of all musical appreciation to Alzheimer's before his death so difficult to grasp.

Talk of dementia and Alzheimer's inevitably revolves around individual stories of loss.

It's a useful and necessary conversation of course: helping us know what to expect, how daily routines will get distilled down to the most basic needs and immediate care.

Less easy to articulate, though, and less talked about, is something that takes longer to process - a kind of transference. So much of my father, for me, was his music (as I pull The Way-Out Voices of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross with The Ike Isaacs Trio from the shelf), lost to him as the disease progressed, yet strengthened even more so in me after his death.

Maybe connecting with the music he loved is a form of grief, but it feels like joy.

He was a talented violinist before entering a career in academia in early childhood education, but he stopped bringing out the instrument later in life.

Records were instead the constant (as they are in my house), along with Dad habitually tuning into the Saturday afternoon opera broadcasts from the Met, filling the house with Turandot, before music left him entirely.

Just as aging and ill parents need physical help, they also need psycho-social support.

That debt, York University's professor emeritus of psychology Stephen Fleming explains, occurs when someone is no longer capable of certain mental tasks. It's when aspects of their identity drop away, which others then pick up and hold onto the pieces for them.

"We don't just go on without our dead. We carry them with us. We continue to have a relationship with them," Dr. Fleming says.

And so, it's impossible to disassociate Dad from his copy of Shostakovich's Symphony No.

5, now among my records. Or the 1965 world-premiere recording of Charles Ives's Symphony No. 4, or Rudolf Serkin performing Schumann's Piano Concerto in A Minor, or jazz trombonist J.J. Johnson's exquisite First Place. These were the essence of my father. Even the first Santana album (Dad was of the age, being a few years older than the hippies, when rock became too important for a classical musician to ignore).

He had two copies at one point.

And maybe it stems from the synesthesia, or blurring together of the senses, that is said to happen sometimes in young children, but one of my earliest memories is of listening to Let It Be and trying to figure out which Beatle on the album cover was Dad.

The late physician Oliver Sacks noted throughout his book Musicophilia that although music can unlock memories in patients, others may come to experience it with an emotional flatness, depending on their injury or ailment.

While a melody can gloriously reopen the mind in some, it can cause a shift in perception in others - music may go from being something good to something to avoid.

Or the brain stops registering it altogether.

The latter is a point of particular sadness. My father sometimes wished he could describe the experience to more people, so he could help others facing the same loss.

These included the many lasts: the last time he walked outside unassisted, the last day in his own home.

Our last significant musical time together was perhaps a couple of years before he died (his Alzheimer's lasted a relatively short three years), when we both stopped to listen to Carole King's So Far Away. He always had an ear for a good pop melody.

My sister had transferred his CDs onto Mom's iPad to make them more accessible. He never used it.

Toward the end, he only acknowledged music when he was shown an orchestral performance on television.

Still, it seemed unbelievable that music wasn't somehow inside him, even if gone from active thought.

"This is a big problem for clinicians, and it falls on the laps of clinical neurologists quite a bit, where you're trying to figure out what the person knows, but can't express," says the cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, who has written extensively on the brain and music.

Often, it can become a question of explicit or implicit memory. Explicit memory is being able to remember your date of birth or that singer's name.

Implicit memory is demonstrating knowledge of something another way, by some other spark of recognition, even if you don't remember knowing it.

When this worsens, everyone in the family can get disoriented, Dr. Levitin notes. It disrupts how that person would usually react to something, and family members can no longer predict "what they'll want to do, how they'll want to spend their time."

Setting aside a group of objects can help some patients.

"In caring for people with dementia, there is a method that we use which is equivalent to setting up a memory box," says Roger Wong, executive associate dean at the University of British Columbia Faculty of Medicine and a clinical professor of geriatric medicine. "You put objects which are of high emotional value, typically from the distant past, into this box."

Of course, the box could also be a photo album or a favourite LP.

Yet, when all power of recognition appears to be lost, the best healing process may be simply to experience the music with others.

These acts of sharing and preservation of dignity are so important in the care of patients, Dr. Wong adds.

We have since had Dad's violin fully restored - it's thought to be at least 150 years old - and donated to a music school to give to a deserving student.

Slightly narrow in shape, the instrument has a subtly sweeter sound, suited more to chamber ensemble rather than robust solo performance.

The violin had been sold to him for far less than its worth back when he was an undergraduate.

The seller no doubt felt my dad deserved a better instrument, too.

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