Local experts tout music’s effect on dementia

Paula Harder
Bob Bell

FRONT ROYAL – Dementia patients can remember forgotten experiences through music therapy.

But family members and caregivers might be surprised to learn which music sparks memories, said Bob Bell, programs and services manager with the Alzheimer’s Association.

“Be prepared for surprises,” Bell said. “You can learn so much about the person.”

When it comes to effective music therapy, Bell said that the music has to be tailored to the individual. One song or genre won’t show the same results in every person. The music needs to have meaning to the patient in order to awaken feelings and experiences previously forgotten.

Music impacts every portion of the brain, he said. It can bring back feelings locked away in various areas of the brain and have more impact on those suffering from memory loss.

Music therapy can also help those suffering from behavioral problems, he said.

If a patient is agitated, a caregiver might play music to reflect that agitation before gradually softening the music to the desired mood.

“Music is a very powerful tool in addressing behavior,” Bell said.

Earlier this month, he and Paula Harder, regional director of resident programs for Commonwealth Assisted Living & Memory Care at Front Royal, met at Samuels Library in Front Royal. They spoke on the benefits of music therapy, following a showing of the documentary “Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory.”

The complimentary viewing was hosted by the Commonwealth Assisted Living & Memory Care.

The 2014 film followed the experiences of social worker Dan Cohen as he advocated for the use of music therapy for dementia patients, both inside and outside of assisted care centers.

Cohen’s work with dementia patients focused on how patients’ memories improved after they listened to their favorite music on personalized iPods.

It’s a concept mirrored locally, through the work Harder has been doing in Front Royal with the Sweet Melodies program at Commonwealth Assisted Living & Memory Care.
The program is for residents in the later stages of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. It focuses on bringing back memories, decreasing agitation and improving mood by allowing residents to reminisce and express themselves through song and dance.

Over the course of six weeks, staff identify the music that resonates most with a resident and brings out positive reactions.

“Each community has an iPad with technology that will allow us to create music playlists for each of our individual residents,” she said. “The program includes evaluation of resident responses to different types of music relevant to their personal life history. These songs will be created into a playlist and staff will monitor and evaluate each resident for enjoyment and responses to the music.”

They are currently in the process of setting up the program and training staff. A focus group of three to four residents will be chosen to test the program. The program will continue until all residents and their families have been given the opportunity to choose to participate in the program.

“Family and staff involvement will be instrumental throughout the program,” she added.

According to a report by the U.S. Census Bureau, http://tiny.cc/oixwcy, between 2012 and 2050, the U.S. will see massive growth in its older population.

“In 2050, the population aged 65 and over is projected to be 83.7 million, almost double its estimated population of 43.1 million in 2012,” the report stated.

This increase in the aging population will start to put more stress on assisted living centers as more individuals will be requiring their services in the next few decades.

The idea of music therapy isn’t a new concept, Harder said, but getting funding for supplies can be difficult.

Still, music therapy techniques can also be used by family members outside of assisted living centers.

The film documentary showed a man caring for his wife with memory loss. He played her favorite songs and she began dancing and singing in their living room and recounting past experiences, becoming more energized than she had been in years.

The film also described an unresponsive patient who began speaking about his past after listening to one of his favorite songs – a past he had once forgotten.

Music has helped a bipolar and schizophrenic woman who required the assistance of a walker. While listening to one of her favorite upbeat songs, she pushed her walker aside and began to dance with Cohen.

These patients, who were solitary and distant with the use of prescription medications, were taken back to their past lively selves after listening to music.

The film noted that antipsychotics aren’t meant for the elderly, but they have become overused, especially as the aging population continues to increase.

For more information on the documentary, go online to http://tiny.cc/n1uwcy.

Contact staff writer Kaley Toy at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or ktoy@nvdaily.com

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