What was the song you danced to at your wedding? Or the song that was playing as you drove off to college? Maybe the music that lingers in your memory is what your mother played on the piano at home or the soundtrack to a favorite movie?
No matter what kind of music resonates in a person’s mind, it turns out to be one of the last things they’ll forget should dementia strike, according to well-known neurologist and author Oliver Sacks.
“Music connects to a deep part of being human,” Sacks said in “Alive Inside,” a documentary about the Music & Memory program, which was founded by Dan Cohen in 2008. “Music activates more parts of the brain than any other stimulus, including parts of the brain that were intended for other purposes like walking, eating and breathing.”
Marilyn McCord has been on a one-woman mission, distributing 21 copies of the documentary to care facilities, the Durango Public Library, The Durango Herald and people she knows who are dealing with loved ones suffering dementia.
“I don’t know why it took so long to discover this, but now that we have, we should all be doing it,” she said.
Since January, Four Corners Health Care Center has been rolling out the Music & Memory program in its Alzheimer’s Unit, a program of personalized playlists on iPods that are reaching patients in ways they’ve never seen before, they said.
“When we started, we just got 15 iPods for the Alzheimer’s wing,” said Christy Ludwig, community relations director at Four Corners. “It wasn’t until we saw ‘Alive Inside’ that we said, ‘Why stop at Alzheimer’s and dementia?’ We have young people with multiple sclerosis, for example, who can’t play music for themselves.”
The result was a decision to make an iPod with a personalized playlist available to all 130 residents at Four Corners, with a target completion date of June.
Four Corners also invited management from Sunshine Gardens and Cottonwood Inn Rehabilitation and Extended Care Center in Three Springs to watch the documentary to get the information out there, Ludwig said.
It takes her about two hours to make a personalized playlist, Ludwig said, and that’s when she knows what music they like. She’s also learned that a 130-song playlist seems to be about right.
Carter Scruggs loves classic country and western music, but Ludwig has found he’s also a fan of Chris LeDoux.
“He always loved music, and he cut a pretty mean rug,” his son-in-law Bill Loughride said. “He and his wife, Velma, went to barn dances at the grange almost every Saturday.”
Scruggs wouldn’t put on the headphones when he first got them.
“He wasn’t into the new technology,” Ludwig said. “On the second day, he said, ‘I’m going to go see if the music will play in my room’ because he didn’t understand he had the iPod with him. As he walked down the hall and still heard the music, he turned around, gave me the thumbs up and did a little dance.”
Kevin Dang presented a challenge. He enthusiastically joins in on John Denver songs when they’re singing in a group, but it turns out he doesn’t really like John Denver. An immigrant from Vietnam, he wants Vietnamese music, and the CDs Ludwig found aren’t the songs he wants. She’s planning to work with his daughter to find the right songs.
Cohen, who has a background in social work and technlogy, began visiting nursing homes in 2006. He started the program after thinking that if he ended up in a nursing home, he’d like to take his favorite music from the 1960s with him. Then he discovered that none of the 16,000 long-term care facilities in the U.S. used iPods in their facilities. It’s been a long haul, he said in the documentary, but Music & Memory crossed the 1,000 mark of facilities using its program earlier this year.
The personalized playlist, Cohen said in the documentary, is the key to its success.
In the documentary, a 94-year-old Alzheimer’s patient named Henry had been virtually silent for a decade until he got his iPod. Not only did he sing along and become energized, he could actually answer questions after listening to his music for a while.
He even remembered the lyrics to his favorite song, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
Four Corners has been running ads requesting donations of CDs and iPod Shuffles.
An anonymous donor dropped off several CDs compiled by KSUT-FM public radio, giving Ludwig some Native American music for her library, which now includes about 10,000 songs. Ludwig is looking for some Dean Martin, Johnny Mathis and Nelson Eddy CDs.
Myra Britton, who handles the activities for the Alzheimer’s unit, usually brings out the headphones at 2 p.m. every day unless there’s live music or something else going on.
But for Warren Holland, afternoon is when he “sundowns,” and he wants to keep moving. So he gets the headphones in the evening, when the music calms him down and helps him go to sleep.
“Warren didn’t have any problem with the headphones because he had used them for search and rescue and the Civil Air Patrol,” his wife, Marilyn, said. “But it was hard to tell them what he specifically likes because he just loves music, classical, patriotic songs, Barbra Streisand, jazz, the New Orleans sound, you name it. So it’s wonderful that they’re doing that something extra because they don’t get too many of those wonderful things with dementia.”
This story has been changed to correct Music & Memory founder Dan Cohen’s background, which is in social work and technology.