Music gives hope to those caring for the elderly

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OAKLEY — A coalition is working to give everyone living with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia iPods loaded with music, in efforts to impact memory.

As part of a nationwide campaign, the Music and Memory Utah Coalition of the Commission on Aging within the Governor's office, is working to collect donated iPods to give to Utahns living with the disease, including those in nursing homes, assisted living centers, and home health caregivers.

Music can have a powerful effect on people. Yet scientists say it remains a mystery how it helps fight diseases such as Alzheimer's.

Activities Director Laurel Bartmess holds a group sing-a-long once a week with some residents at Elk Meadow Assisted Living in Oakley.

As she leads the group of six in song, her voice cracks a little.

“Okay, that one requires more practice for me,” she said.

Bartmess doesn’t consider herself a musician. She said her residents look forward to that group music therapy with her and other nurses once a week.

“We’ve got to find the right song,” said Bartmess, who also knows just when an old familiar tune hits the right spot for the residents.

Every year in the U.S., one in three seniors with Alzheimer's or other dementia dies, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. In 2014, roughly 28,000 Utahns age 65 and older were diagnosed with the disease. The Utah Department of Health reports Alzheimer's rates are growing faster in Utah than anywhere in the country, especially among women.

It may just be that music is a trigger to all stored memories that they weren't able to access as easily as before.

–Dr. Jeffrey Anderson, U of U

That’s why daily one-on-one music therapy with those living with Alzheimer’s and other dementia, gives caregivers hope, said Bartmess.

“Their music is specialized to them,” she said.

One Resident, Rodney, has an iPod loaded with music and earphones covering his ears.

“Look at Rodney. He is a quiet man,” said Bartmess. “I haven’t seen him smile as much as I do when I put the music on him.”

When life experiences are locked away in the brain, held hostage by time, age, and disease, a popular classic can make all the difference.

“I instantly see a change. If they're obsessing about something like the time or when to eat they can stop and they'll listen to music,” said Bartmess, as jazz tunes begins to play on Rodney’s iPod. “They'll stop asking questions over and over again or they'll just be peaceful and look less frustrated, or they'll smile.”

Scientists don’t know how or why music has an effect on memory.

“The part of the brain that seems to be preserved from Alzheimer’s disease are areas that process social interactions. The frontal lobes,” said Dr. Jeffrey Anderson, a neuro-radiologist at University of Utah Medical Center.

When it comes to music, said Anderson, “It’s not just playing oldies or a particular kind of music. It’s about something that has some type of personal meaning for the individual.”

At this point, scientists are still trying to pinpoint exactly how music's harmonies and melodies manage to fight off Alzheimer's in that crucial part of the brain.

“It may just be that music is a trigger to all stored memories that they weren't able to access as easily as before,” said Anderson.

Elk Meadow resident Elaine Egan once lived in New York, where she attended Broadway shows like “South Pacific.”

Now she’s listening to show tunes from that Broadway play on her iPod. And for a while she’s back in the Big Apple again.

“It was Ezio Pinza. He was the lead singer and Mary Martin,” recalled Egan in her Bronx, New York accent. “She’d (Mary Martin) be on the stage with her little shower. And she’d wash her hair in front of the audience. And that was like the big thing.”

As music sparks meaningful memories for Utahns like Egan, caregivers hope for a better quality of life, if only for the space of a few songs on an iPod.


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