In struggle with Alzheimer’s, music is lifeline for local violinist

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Williamsburg resident Marcia Munn (left) with her mother, 82-year old Elizabeth Popovich, who still enjoys playing the violin regularly. (Courtesy Marcia Munn)
Williamsburg resident Marcia Munn (left) with her mother, 82-year old Elizabeth Popovich, who still enjoys playing the violin regularly. (Courtesy Marcia Munn)

If anything is familiar to 82-year-old Liz Popovich, it’s her polished wood violin. When Popovich glides the bow across the strings, her face lights up. In that moment, she’s carried away by the sound of music she plays entirely from memory. 

And that’s what’s intriguing.

Popovich is one of an estimated 5.4 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior. Symptoms usually develop slowly and get worse over time, becoming severe enough to interfere with daily tasks. So how is it possible for Popovich, who struggles at times to recognize her daughter who she sees regularly, to recall and play music she learned years ago on her violin?

Dr. Kemal Chemali of Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, in Norfolk, Va., says that positive reactions to music in Alzheimer’s and dementia patients are common. Memory lost elsewhere can be temporarily restored through music, because unlike other cognitive functions within the brain, which are relegated to specific lobes, music is free to interact with the entire brain.

It’s why we can affix an emotion or a memory to a song. Even experts don’t full understand how, but signs point to the ability of music to retrieve lost memory using neurons as conductors. Healthy neurons reactivate neurons damaged by Alzheimer’s disease, thus restoring a memory, if only temporarily. This is why Popovich can remember people and things when she plays or hears familiar music.

“We know that certain areas develop more when you are a musician,” said Chemali. “Motor areas develop well when you study an instrument. If she can still play the violin, she can create emotions and memories and play more music.” 

Chemali cites procedural memory—the part of the long-term memory that is responsible for knowing how to do things like picking up and playing an instrument—for making Popovich’s memories stronger, but said even though music and music therapy have been shown to slow disease progression in Alzheimer’s patients, that the prognosis remains the same.

“We think that exposing patients to music also improves general cognition, behavior, nutrition and education. But Alzheimer’s is progressive and eats up neurons. No matter how many connections you build, you can slow it, but the disease is going to win,” said Chemali.

For Munn, watching her mother digress has been difficult. This isn’t the Liz Popovich she is used to be. That Liz Popovich, born Elizabeth Colleen Nantell, was a fiery go-getter.

Raised in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in a town called Escanaba, Popovich grew up ice skating on Lake Michigan. Her love for music began in childhood. According to Munn, her mother may have had some lessons along the way, but she’s mostly self-taught. She played the violin when she was eight and picked up the French horn and piano. “Music was always a cornerstone for her,” Munn said.

After high school, she trekked to Chicago, Ill., to attend nursing school at Wesley Memorial Hospital School of Nursing, where she graduated in 1955. She met Robert Popovich on a blind date and the pair married that same year, a 58-year union that bore six children—four boys and three girls of which Munn is the oldest—and six grandchildren.

“My mom was an unbelievable wife, mother and grandmother. Even with six children, she was a fantastic seamstress. I think I can still remember every outfit she made for me,” said Munn.

For 30 years of her life, Popovich worked as a high-risk delivery nurse at Centegra Health System in McHenry, Ill., where she would join helicopter flights when expectant mothers needed to be transferred to other hospitals for delivery.

After retiring, she devoted her time her grandchildren. She still found pleasure in swimming, ice skating three times a week, going to the gym six days a week, singing in the choir, gardening, reading, feeding birds, knitting daily and practicing her violin as soon as she woke up every morning.

That’s is the Liz Popovich who Munn remembers.

While Alzheimer’s began to take hold of her mother, in 2013, her father, Robert Popovich grew ill, was hospitalized for several weeks and then died unexpectedly. It was now on Munn to be her mother’s caretaker.

Munn was working to transition her parents to an assisted living facility at the time of her father’s death. She and her husband, Tom—who were both planning to retire—decided instead to include moving Popovich from Chicago to Williamsburg with them with the intent of placing her in a memory care unit.

In January 2015, Munn brought her mother to the Clare Bridge Alzheimer’s and Dementia Program at Brookdale Senior Living Solutions, where she was one of the first residents. Munn still remembers when her mother got off of the airplane before arriving in Williamsburg; the only thing she was carrying was her violin.

“It was her most prized possession,” Munn said.

With her mother in care, Munn decided to do something for herself. She and her husband took a class called “Behind the Scenes at Williamsburg Professional Symphony Orchestra” offered by William & Mary’s Christopher Wren Association.

It was there where she met Carolyn Keurajian, executive director of the Williamsburg Symphony Orchestra. Unbeknownst to Munn, that meeting would rekindle lost aspects of her relationship with her mother.

Munn shared the story of her mother’s love of orchestra and playing the violin. She also told Keurajian that she could no longer take her mother to the evening concerts because Popovich has sundowning, a condition that creates confusion, agitation and disorientation after sunset in those with memory loss.

Keurajian invited Munn and Popovich to attend the orchestra’s rehearsals at the Kimball Theatre on Duke of Gloucester Street since they were held during the day.

“We were one of less than 10 people in the Kimball Theatre,” said Munn. “She always sits in the third row right behind Janna [Hymes], the conductor, and she thinks they’re performing a concert just for her.”

Munn noticed that after exposing her mother to music rehearsals that Popovich could hold conversations, talk about the music she just heard, and discuss the instruments and performers. Keurajian made the same observation.

“When she walks in she seems confused. After rehearsal, she is very verbal and can talk specifically about what happened in the rehearsal. She’s present,” said Keurajian, who added that since Popovich has been attending, Munn emails her warm letters thanking her for giving her mother back to her.

Chemali said that science aligns with what Munn and Keurajian are witnessing.

“Music is one of the last things to go in Alzheimer’s. You may forget who you are, who your kids are, but you can remember a song and sing it without making a single mistake,” he said.

So for now, Munn has the mother she remembers as long as Popovich can recall the music. Munn takes her mother to scores of concerts during the holiday season—24 last year and 17 planned for this year—just to see her face light up and enjoy conversations again. But her deepest gratitude and appreciation is extended to the kindness shown to her by the Williamsburg Symphony Orchestra.

“It’s gives her the sense of who she once was and what she was able to do. It makes her feel special,” Munn said. “What the symphony has given her is the nicest thing that’s happened to her.”