NEW CASTLE, Pa. — Forty years ago, Jane and Walter Karski danced to “Annie’s Song” at their wedding.
Yesterday, John Denver’s classic love song brought tears to Jane’s eyes as she watched Walter, with headphones in place, sing along.
Since Walter was diagnosed eight years ago with frontotemporal dementia, the Karskis have tried a variety of therapies to slow the disease’s progression. Music became one of the most effective.
“As his memory faded, I noticed music always seemed to calm him,” said Jane, a Neshannock Township dentist who also serves as organist at Clen-Moore Presbyterian Church.
Although Walter, whom she met while he was a student at Youngstown State University where her father taught, didn’t have a musical background, he always enjoyed music. Since the 68-year-old founder of Karski Security Inc. was diagnosed, he’s been able to join the Clen-Moore choir and cherishes sessions at the piano with his wife.
“Although the gains have been modest, I’ve been able to reteach him some things through music,” Jane said, noting that Walter’s form of dementia causes behavioral issues and obsessive-compulsive actions, including gorging himself on food.
So, when he began begging strangers for sweets, Jane wrote the lyrics, “I must listen to my wife, no gum and candy in my life,” which Walter sings repeatedly.
A few more tunes may enter the former electrical engineer’s repertoire as yesterday he received a music filled Memory Player on loan from Rhodes Estates Senior Living.
The specialized wireless headphones are part of the Alive Inside program coordinated by Anastasia Lynn, program director at Rhodes whose sister works as a dental assistant for Jane. The easy-to-use Memory Players feature only an on/off button and play customizable music downloaded onto a memory card.
“I’ve seen how music helps my mom,” Lynn said of her parent, who has Alzheimer’s. “When I use (the Memory Player) with her, it’s like I get my old mom back for a while.”
Working with Alive Inside Foundation, Rhodes Estates utilizes Memory Players with residents at the New Castle senior living facility in addition to lending the devices to local families, like the Karskis, who have a dementia patient in the home.
An award-winning documentary “Alive Inside,” details the ability of music’s to reawaken and revitalize those with dementia. On March 31, a music-filled fundraiser to help with the purchase of more Memory Players is planned at The Confluence.
“It gives the caregiver another tool for making their loved ones feel at ease and reduces loneliness,” Lynn said, relating how use of the Memory Player eased her mother’s anxiety while she was hospitalized and recovering from surgery after a fall.
“Being in the box has done nothing for us, so we’re thinking outside the box. It’s come with much experimentation,” Jane said as Walter bobbed his head and tapped his toes, before joining his wife and visitor for a dance to The Temptations’ “My Girl.”
“Every single night for eight years I’ve spent looking for the best medical treatments on earth, trying to make a difference, not just for us, but for those who come after us,” said Karski, who spends each evening doing research after she puts her husband to bed.
“It’s truly a 36-hour day, but I do it because I love him with all of my heart,” she said. “When he was first diagnosed, they only gave him five years, but his decline has been much slower than expected.”
Although Walter has taken part in experimental drug tests and underwent a stem cell infusion, Jane largely credits the slow progression of the dementia to changes in lifestyle, including taking 11 structured classes a week at the New Castle YMCA and a strict, mostly organic, diet with no sugar, wheat or gluten.
Usually docile and happy, Walter remains able to read stories to the couple’s two grandchildren and go fishing with their two sons. With guidance, he can do some household chores like taking out the trash, caring for the couple’s two dogs and vacuuming.
Because he had long-term care insurance, which pays for an aide while Jane continues to work part time, Walter has been able to remain at home.
“I realize we’re in a unique position and we’re blessed to be able to do that, which is why I want to make a difference for those who come after us,” Jane said.
“Sure, it gets depressing at times, but we still have him and that makes every moment precious. Instead of being disappointed about what we’ve lost, I try to be amazed at what remains,” she continued, adding that something one of her patients told her gets her through the tough times. “She told me, ‘We know one day someone will be a survivor, let’s see if it can be Walter.’
“This isn’t quite how I thought retirement would go,” she added, “But I’ve rebuilt my world around him. I’m not giving up on Walter.”
Information from: New Castle News, http://www.ncnewsonline.com