As a native, I’ve been hearing a certain song for nearly 60 years. “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” was first sung by Tony Bennett at the Fairmont Hotel’s Venetian Room in 1961 and released in an album a year later.
Ironically, my sister was married in that hotel in 1969 and I started riding those “little cable cars” that “climbed halfway to the stars” daily to my first ad agency job on the California Street line a few years after that.
Now, through a recent interview by AARP The Magazine, we’ve all learned of the bravery of Tony at age 94, his wife Susan, and their son Danny to break their silence and the corresponding stigmas about his Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis five years ago, finally go public.
He’s one of more than five million Americans living with this heartbreaking disease, including one in 10 people who are 65 years or older.
The first signs of cognitive decline.
One day in 2015, his wife noticed that Tony complained that he couldn’t remember the musicians’ names anymore onstage. He had just turned 90 and this is a common occurrence at that age, but Tony — and Susan — knew that something was wrong and they sought a doctor’s advice.
The AARP article by John Colapinto says, “Bennett, first diagnosed in 2016, has so far been spared the disorientation that can prompt patients to wander from home, as well as the episodes of terror, rage or depression that can accompany Alzheimer’s frightening detachment from reality; and, indeed, he might never develop these symptoms. But there was little doubt that the disease had progressed.”
“A Symbol of Hope.”
On the positive side, Gayatri Devi, M.D., a neurologist who diagnosed Tony, says that he “brought an amazingly versatile brain” to that first appointment. She noted he had some “cognitive issues but multiple other areas of his brain are still resilient and functioning well.”
She recommended standard Alzheimer’s disease medications, a continuation of his strong family support, as well as his Mediterranean diet and exercise routines.
Today, Tony’s expression has changed.
While recording a follow-up album between 2018 and 2020 with Lady Gaga after their smash hit “Cheek to Cheek” single and album of standards that debuted #1 on Billboard’s Top 200 pop and rock chart in 2014, Tony seemed different to her.
He was more withdrawn, spoke rarely, and seemed lost. Gaga, shown in documentary footage during the recording, was visibly saddened to see her friend and musical mentor’s decline. Everyone involved knows it may very well be the last record he’ll ever record.
Gone was his ever-present smile and the twinkle in his eyes. His moments of clarity have now become increasingly rare. He is experiencing short-term memory loss so common among dementia patients. He can still recognize his family members, but is not always sure where he is. He still paints portraits and has become well-known for that specific talent.
Music kept Tony active.
But above all, his music has helped keep Tony active and he continued to tour, sung his 90-minute sets, and still received rave reviews from critics and audiences who did not know of his diagnosis until recently. His public tours continued until March 2020, just before the pandemic forced cancellation of all concerts.
Dr. Devi continues, “He is doing so many things, at 94, that many people without dementia cannot do. He really is the symbol of hope for someone with a cognitive disorder. Singing kept him on his toes and also stimulated his brain in a significant way.”
Music memory and peculiar power as a “universal language”.
Music can reach even severely afflicted dementia patients. It can stir memories. It can re-establish connections. It can take them back to carefree times decades ago when their lives were unencumbered with memory issues.
Brandon James Carone, Research Associate for LIMBIC-CENC and a grad student intern at Music Mends Minds, a nonprofit musical support group for patients with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, Parkinson’s, traumatic brain injury, stroke, and PTSD, says, “ ‘Music is the universal language.’
“This quote has been prominent for over 200 years because of the general understanding that music is present across all cultures and all ways of life. Even when the lyrics of a song are in a different language or there are no lyrics present at all, we are still able to feel and empathize with the conveyed emotions whether they be happy, sad, anxious, or relaxed.
“Several research studies examining music’s effects on the brain have shown marvelous outcomes in several cognitive domains through musical training and music listening, but one topic that is especially intriguing is the interplay of music and memory.
“Surprisingly, in older adults with neurodegenerative diseases, musical memories are not always affected. In patients with Alzheimer’s Disease (AD), there are different forms of musical memory that may be differentially impaired. Implicit musical memory (e.g., ability to play a musical instrument) is often spared in musicians with AD; however, explicit musical memory (e.g., recognition of familiar or unfamiliar melodic content) is typically impaired. While memories of certain melodic content may be more susceptible to memory loss, the ability to play a musical instrument may be unforgettable in musicians with AD (Baird, et al., 2009).
“Although we don’t fully understand how music is stored in the brain, it seems as though significant songs from our past never lose their ability to elicit vivid autobiographical memories. This phenomenon is especially important for the members of Music Mends Minds and other populations experiencing neurodegeneration.
“Even when they are unable to remember their kids’ names or their own birthday, they can often re-experience very specific moments in their life and feel the associated nostalgia when they hear the songs that once meant so much to them. Being able to recall these memories empowers them, increasing their self-worth, confidence, and sense of identity.”
Susan Bennett concludes, “Singing is everything to him. Everything. It has saved his life many times. Through divorces and things. If he ever stops singing, that’s when we’ll know. Because he’s not the old Tony anymore, but when he sings, he’s the old Tony.”
SGD’s Call to Music Action for All Those Suffering with Neurodegenerative Decline.
Music Mends Minds and their board-certified music therapist invite you to join their happy, fun-loving global family of seniors. They use the power of music to change brain chemistry and convert their suffering into pure joy. This is a free service Monday, Wednesday, Friday at 1pm PDT. All are welcome. Zoom Link.
How you can help your loved one.
Per the AARP article, The Global Council on Brain Health recommends these six key behaviors that can help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and ease its course:
- Maintain social ties
- Challenge the brain
- Manage stress
- Exercise regularly
- Eat right
- Get restorative sleep
Find out more at aarp.org/brainhealth.
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SGD is a San Francisco Bay Area advertising, marketing and branding agency specializing in the senior and boomer markets. We’ve successfully positioned, branded and rebranded senior-oriented companies, weaving traditional and online tactics to create compelling stories that drive response.
About the Author: Gil Zeimer is a Partner at SGD Advertising.