An Ode to Joy and Music Therapy

I have this friend named Hilde. She is 84, grew up in Germany during the war, and is currently living with dementia.

From day one, I knew we’d have a special relationship.

Hilde spent most of her days disoriented and confused, lost in her own mind trying to make sense of her environment.

Some days, I would walk into the long-term care community I worked in to see Hilde staring out the door in tears, longing to go home. Other times, she’d be sitting stoically as though frozen in time or asking the concierge the same questions over and over again as she struggled to communicate her needs.

Hilde’s anxiety overwhelmed her quality of life. She was unable to sit through activities and she struggled to find people she related to.

But then, I discovered her secret: Hilde loved German music.

When I played Fritz Wunderlich, Zarah Leander, polka, or Beethoven, Hilde’s tears would melt as her contagious smile broke out. She would grab my hand and say, “Isn’t that wonderful?” and her favorite question, “I wonder… is he married?” She would translate the lyrics for me and play tambourine with impeccable rhythm as I played her favorite opera tunes on the piano.

Her reaction was so consistent I was able to train the care staff to lead Hilde through this intervention when I was not available.

I had found a way to give Hilde a moment of relief from the often terrifying world of dementia. Her joy made it easy to keep showing up.

People often tell me what I do is hard and sometimes that is true. But most of the time, I smile and share how truly honored I am to walk with people during the most vulnerable days of their lives. I get to hear their stories and sit with them as they adjust to difficult life circumstances. I am constantly amazed that even though many of my clients never remember my name, they know me and I know them.

And it’s all because of music.

Sometimes, I would seek Hilde out for my own music therapy. I would find her and start humming the famous melody of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. She would rub my hand, smile, and sing the lyrics in perfect German. She’d look me in the eye and talk about the meaning of the lyrics—the hope that all mankind would sing together in unity.

Those moments sitting with Hilde were truly an “Ode to Joy.” I will treasure them forever and keep them as inspiration to keep making music so that we too can sing together in collective harmony.

In Song,