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Brigitte Matsoukas was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease ten years ago. Earlier this year she suffered multiple strokes that left her aphasic — unable to talk. But that hasn’t stopped her from taking piano lessons.
“My mom [is a] strong woman,” said her daughter Yvonne Matsoukas-Falk. After the stroke, Yvonne had to push for her mother to be treated at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab because she was over the age limit. “They don’t take anyone over 80,” said Yvonne, “but [my mom] was doing things they didn’t think she could do.”
A Musical Past, A Musical Future
Born in Berlin in 1926, “Gitta” grew up in a musical household with a classical record collection and a love for Edith Piaf. She took violin lessons as a child and piano lessons as an adult in the 1970s. After her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, her neurologist suggested doing activities that use the left and right hand to stimulate both brain hemispheres.
When violin lessons didn’t pan out, Gitta’s son-in-law, John Falk, called Piano Power about piano lessons. In 2017 the family connected with teacher Adrienne Schroeder. Adrienne had played music for her own grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s. Adrienne also had some experience playing music in nursing homes. She wasn’t surprised that Gitta had difficulty retaining what she learned the week before; lessons were fairly similar from week to week.
“But you could see in her eyes and her smile that she got so much joy out of it,” Adrienne said.
Focusing on Joy
During lessons, Adrienne focused on doing what was necessary to evoke Gitta’s joy, whether teaching her simple octaves, or working with her on Schubert’s “The Trout”. The two quickly developed a friendly rapport.
“Gitta was going to quit piano a couple of times, but Adrienne was so nice and calm with her. She made her look forward to it,” John said. “[Gitta] stopped being self-conscious.”
Before her first stroke in March 2018, Gitta could play three or four songs she had memorized, which was unusual for an Alzheimer’s patient. But after the stroke, Gitta was unable to move her hands or speak.
After the Stroke
Musical engagement, which was already helping Gitta slow her dementia, became even more central to her stroke recovery. Yvonne and John recalled how, post-stroke, the nurses at Shirley Ryan used sing-song phrases and simple melodies (“Happy Birthday”, “Row Row Row Your Boat”) to communicate with Gitta about eating and other everyday functions.
“For strokes and other kinds of brain injuries, music is key to getting people to start talking, and to get them out of a catatonic state,” Yvonne said. John added that musical abilities and understanding reside in a part of the brain that is unaffected by stroke.
A New Approach to Lessons
Because of Gitta’s new physical limitations, piano “lessons” evolved into Adrienne simply playing for her.
“She would bounce around a little in her chair, and she seemed like she would really enjoy it,” Adrienne said. “Gradually she started using her hands more.”
Now, Adrienne works with helping Gitta move her fingers up and down the keys. Because the stroke left her paralyzed on the right side, she has a harder time picking her right arm up off her lap and putting it on the keys.
“She could still get her right side back,” Yvonne said. “The more she moves it, the better it will be.”
Music and Alzheimer’s
Playing music can be extremely therapeutic for people with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia. In addition to the benefit of physical movement and the social boost of working with a teacher, music supports cognitive brain function. Consequently, music “is an excellent way to reach beyond the disease and reach the person.” (Alzheimers.net)
By creating a “safe space” where Gitta can try things on her own and delight in the music she loves, Adrienne has reached Gitta the person, not just Gitta the patient.
What’s Good for the Student is Good for the Teacher
The positive effects flow in both directions. Because Gitta loves Chopin, Adrienne said she challenges herself to practice the composer’s difficult pieces. Adrienne cited as inspiration a part of a welcome address given to Boston Conservatory students by Karl Paulnack: Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.
“It makes me really happy to give Gitta joy,” Adrienne said. “I teach her about piano, but by just being who she is she’s taught me a lot about resilience and positivity. Whenever I’m having a bad day and I go there, it puts everything in perspective.”