Assisted Living Education Special Feature: Glen Campbell, Music & the Alzheimer’s Condition
On March 20th, 2017, Kim Campbell announced that her beloved and famous husband, Glen Campbell could no longer play guitar due to his advancing Alzheimer’s condition.
Glen Campbell revealed his early-stage AD diagnosis at 75 years in 2011 at the same time his last work, Ghost on Canvas was released. He launched a world “Goodbye Tour” serving as his finale to live performance. Live shows a few years before his diagnosis were “train wrecks” according to his daughter, Ashley. She joined her father along with her two brothers to make up his band for the Goodbye Tour. With the knowledge of his AD diagnosis, his fans welcomed him enthusiastically at sold-out shows for this final farewell. They cheered him compassionately even as certain moments on stage made it clear that AD was overtaking the Rhinestone Cowboy with its classic symptoms of confusion, memory lapses, and disorientation.
Documented conversations and interactions seen in I’ll Be Me revealed a mix of Glen Campbell’s usual wit plus non sequitur sentences or behaviors characteristic of AD. Still, music and live performance seemed to be Campbell’s compass, orienting him back to the talent and persona everyone knew and loved.
Through Glen Campbell’s open story, Assisted Living Education discusses the unique challenges seen with individuals and families dealing with dementia diseases like Alzheimer’s. We also discuss how music can reach people and seemingly revive their memories and cognition, even if just for a brief time.
Alzheimer’s: The Silent Thief
Glen Campbell’s Alzheimer’s journey can be eye-opening to some, but is painfully familiar to those with experience in dementia conditions. The 2014 documentary “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me” presents a glimpse into how Campbell’s family dealt and interacted with him on his final tour. It also reveals the everyday struggles with this debilitating disease, which can elicit anger, frustration, and depression in the individual, punctuated with moments of surprising wit and clarity. For families and friends, it is a disease that deeply affects more than just the one diagnosed.
The certain prognosis for dementia conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is a significant, cognitive decline eventually leading to waning physical abilities as well. This degenerative condition unravels years of solidly ingrained skills, knowledge, capabilities, language, and even motor skills that many of us take for granted. AD and other dementia conditions are unforgiving, dragging everyone down a heartbreaking path as the individual succumbs to the detriments of the disease.
Fortunately, music can offer a surprising reprieve, which Glen Campbell’s story highlights. In the early to mid-stages of the disease, though day-to-day functioning can be challenging, music has a unique way of speaking to the mind and bringing the individual back to their element. Glen, his family, and his fans were able to enjoy Glen Campbell as Glen Campbell when the music flowed, and his charming voice filled the air.
How is Music Able to ‘Wake Up’ the Brain?
Many people working with dementia or Alzheimer’s residents know that music can work as an amazing time warp. It can take the individual back to a time and place where they are cognizant again, with astounding precision matching a beat, singing, or even playing along to the music. This is what Glen Campbell’s family and many of his fans witnessed, even as his AD progressed.
One of Glen Campbell’s doctors had referred to these abilities as ‘overlearned skills’, but also apply to other memories as well. These skills, abilities, or memories were so well mastered or left such an impression that they were ‘recorded’ in more than one area of the brain. Because of this, the individual may be able to recall certain memories or skills if the disease has not affected the other areas of the brain that information was stored in.
In fact, Glen’s doctor encouraged him to keep playing and singing, with the idea that keeping the brain engaged with these skills would help prolong the positive effects and strengthen the remaining neural circuits. The brain is often compared to a muscle; keeping it active and engaged helps it remain strong and operational. Lack of stimulation leads to neural atrophy, further advancing degeneration and decline.
During breaks in his “Goodbye Tour,” Campbell would attend physical or occupational therapy as well as other doctors’ visits to check in on his condition; some of these visits were featured in I’ll Be Me. One of his neurologists commented that while he noticed a decline in Glen’s memory, he was impressed with his ability to perform and communicate. Disorientation issues Glen had the year prior seemed to resolve itself, according to his wife, Kim. The neurologist noted that the key to preserving much of Glen’s intellectual ability was due to indulging in the activities Glen loves so dearly: music and performance.
“It’s just something that’s in your system. That’s… I really don’t know what it is. I wish – I wish I knew.”
— Glen Campbell, I’ll Be Me
It is now three years since I’ll Be Me was made. Glen Campbell was moved to a long-term care facility in 2014, but returned home in 2015. In 2016, Campbell became a resident at a Nashville memory care facility as he takes on the final stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. At that point, aphasia, the inability to understand or express speech, had settled in. Campbell could no longer communicate or understand words, but his family says his disposition remained content and cheery.
When Kim released the news that Glen could no longer play guitar, she shared that he still enjoys playing ‘air guitar’ and singing, but the music he makes now is unrecognizable to others. She did add that whatever tune he was singing seemed like a happy one.
Making Glen Campbell’s diagnosis public helped Glen prolong his abilities, but also helps others who are faced with the challenges of AD or dementia. Glen and his family have become advocates for Alzheimer’s awareness and demonstrated that this disease has no discretion for race, class, or status. Though heartbreaking to watch, Glen Campbell’s journey can help families and others better understand what can happen to a person afflicted with Alzheimer’s or dementia.
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