How can listening to opera possibly improve the cognitive function of dementia patients? Notice I didn’t ask whether. According to McKnight’s, Chinese researchers are proving the point, and who am I to argue? You’ll notice that opera characters who express strong opinions generally die.
I love opera, so getting to listen to it all the time as therapy would take at least a little bit of the sting out of losing my mental faculties. Truth be told, what happens on the stage makes a lot more sense to me than what happens off it these days, so living permanently in that world might be a relief.
Many people would choose to let their dementia run wild rather than listen to opera music. If nursing homes start playing it regularly, lawsuits will undoubtedly follow, alleging harm from the overuse of psychomusical meds.
Opera also can cause debilitating vision problems. According to an unreliable source — me — eye rolls caused by a description of opera plots can result in permanent damage to the optic nerve and eye socket musculature.
Regardless, in the 12-week study, playing traditional Chinese opera music to older dementia patients helped reduce the behavioral and psychiatric symptoms of the disease. But why did it seem to soothe and calm?
Here’s a theory. Perhaps the heartrending arc of opera characters, as evidenced in the tragic choices they seem hopelessly predestined to make, parallels the feelings of inevitability and powerlessness felt by those with dementia. Even in a foreign language without translation, you can hear the pain, fear and loss.
In Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” Cio-Cio-San watches the harbor day after day, naively hoping for her beloved’s return. When he does, the outcome is anything but happily ever after.
Maybe that’s why opera resonates with those suffering from dementia. They’re living a heartbreaking story they’re powerless to change.