Connecting with memories of ‘The King’ - even through dementia

The theme of Dementia Awareness Month is ‘You are not alone’. One way HammondCare seeks to express this to people with dementia is through the joy, comfort and reminiscence of music engagement. Leigh Hatcher reports on one remarkable example of a life enriched by some of the best loved music of the past century.

This is the story of one poignant snapshot, frozen in time.

For the last eight months, Larry Muhoberac has been living in a residential aged care home on the NSW Central Coast.

In this touching moment, captured in the care home, Larry was clearly connecting with distant memories of fame – and Elvis Presley.

Music running through his veins

When he was five years old, growing up in Louisiana, USA, Larry was already playing accordion and piano. According to music historian Bruce Elder – ‘he had music running through his veins’.

By 1959 Larry was a professional musician and music arranger, living in Memphis – where he first met Elvis. ‘The King’ asked him to arrange the musical scores on four of his hit movies. Larry was such a success, Elvis asked him to play keyboards for his legendary 1969 season of performances in Las Vegas’ International Hotel.

In 1986 Larry and his wife Andra Willis Muhoberac, (who had known great musical fame of her own in the US) packed up and moved to Australia, where they both continued their careers.

Moving to Australia

Four years ago Andra started to notice changes in Larry, which eventually led to a diagnosis of Frontotemperal dementia. Earlier this year he moved into Jabiru cottage at HammondCare Erina, near Gosford.

Andra is a constant visitor and support: “I’ve been blown away by the care Larry gets here – it’s truly absolutely amazing. It feels like a home away from home for both of us. I’ve made a lot of friends here”, she says.

As part of their everyday care, HammondCare residents like Larry receive a personalised iPod, through the organisation’s Music Engagement Program.

Each iPod has a customised playlist, according to the musical taste of the resident. For Larry, Elvis takes pride of place alongside other artists of his era, including the renowned Ray Charles – to whom Larry was particularly close.

Andra says “Clearly something different and something significant happens when Elvis comes on Larry’s iPod”.

According to HammondCare’s Director of Music Engagement, Dr Kirsty Beilharz, “Music often connects when speech fails and for musicians, so-called ‘muscle memory’ or deep mechanical memory of playing their instrument endures”.

Music brings a mantle of friendship

For Larry, Dr Beilharz says, “The music of Elvis and Ray Charles on his iPod probably also provides a mantle of friendship, a reassuring sense of familiarity and comfort. Larry’s expression, and the joy he gives to others, is a beautiful example of him connecting through music, and experiencing appreciation, despite having dementia”.

Andra Willis Muhoberac says the picture of Larry connecting with Elvis - seen performing on the Jabiru cottage TV screen - is typical of the way he zeroes in on a song he knows or an old friend, like ‘The King’.

“It’s just like he’s looking at an old family movie”.