From a Caregiver’s Perspective: Music Therapy and Language Retention


Partners in FTD Care, Fall 2020
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by Gary Eilrich

Soon after retiring, I noticed my wife was having trouble expressing herself. Our primary care physician suggested an appointment with a behavioral neurologist, and after an evaluation and neuropsychological testing, she was diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia.

She soon began attending speech therapy sessions, which she enjoyed; she was diligent about practicing her speech exercises at home. She also enjoyed and benefited from a weekly group meeting called “Speak Easy,” which provided unique and innovative programing for people with neurogenic communication disorders. She attended the group most Mondays for two years; when she stopped enjoying the exercises, a speech language pathologist suggested music therapy to continue to preserve communication.

Music therapy involves an evidence-based, clinical use of musical interventions to improve clients’ quality of life, and, in our case, to preserve language and communication. Always a music lover, my wife was motivated to try the therapy.

The music therapist came to our home to provide private sessions, in which I also participated so I could learn more about ways to support our communication and to know what my wife needed to practice during the week. The therapist kept meticulous notes to track my wife’s progress. We learned that even though my wife was rapidly losing her ability to talk, she could still sing certain phrases, so the therapist taught her how to incorporate specific sayings into familiar songs. She learned to sing “I have to go to the bathroom,” “I love you,” and “The tilapia was good.” (Tilapia is her favorite food.)

We spend winters in another part of the country and found another music therapist there. That therapist made a CD of phrases that she and my wife worked on so we could listen and practice on long drives. Over time, my wife’s ability to express herself declined even further, but she remained able to sing the short phrases she had learned in speech therapy for longer than expected.

Music therapy provided an effective way for my wife and me to communicate even as her ability to verbally express herself declined. Most importantly, she enjoyed herself, which helped to improve her quality of life.

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