Healthy Choices

Music reaches memories for Sacramento seniors with Alzheimer’s

Gloria Silcott spends most days in her wheelchair, socializing very little and verbalizing only with muffled “yes” or “no” answers. Immobilized by a stroke 15 years ago, she cannot speak clearly or express herself. Typically, say staffers at Eskaton Care Center Greenhaven, she has a flat, sad affect.

That is, until the twang of country-western music pops into her iPod headset. On a recent afternoon, as the chords of Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” were belting out, Silcott, 66, was beaming, bouncing her black-velcroed shoes, bobbing her head and even mouthing bits of the refrain.

“It gives her the ability to relax and connect and engage. It’s seeing the brightness in her eyes,” said Eskaton Greenhaven executive director Heather Craig, who views music as a way to calm agitated patients and return a glimmer of normalcy to their lives.

As part of a program underway in nursing homes statewide, Silcott is one of dozens of California dementia and Alzheimer’s patients who are getting personalized playlists of their favorite songs, a novel treatment launched six years ago by Music & Memory Inc., a nonprofit based in Mineola, N.Y.

It’s based on the notion that certain songs are stuck in our brains, like soundtracks to our memories. For patients with Alzheimer’s or dementia, those musical memories can unlock – albeit briefly – a connection to their former life, before disease or illness robbed them of their verbal and cognitive capabilities.

“It’s incredibly powerful,” said Jocelyn Montgomery, director of clinical affairs for the California Association of Health Facilities, or CAHF, which is running a three-year statewide project to assess the effect of music-and-memory programs on dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. “It doesn’t bring them out (of their condition), but they become more responsive and aware of the music. They’re getting in touch with memories and feelings that are really rich. ... It doesn’t fix the dementia, it just helps them be (more) in the present.”

There’s also some science behind it.

“It’s certainly one of those phenomenon for which the anecdotal evidence is simply staggering,” said psychology professor Petr Janata of the Center for Mind and Brain at UC Davis, who has researched the effect of music on the brain. Memories are stored in the part of our brains – the “pre-supplementary motor area” – that is one of the least afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease, he said. “That spared part of the brain can support responding to familiar music,” he said.

CAHF, which represents the state’s skilled nursing facilities, considers the music-and-memory project another tool for minimizing the use of psychotropic drugs, which were once commonly used to calm down agitated or restless dementia patients.

As part of a three-year, $1.4 million grant, CAHF is offering training and free iPods for as many as 4,500 residents in up to 300 skilled nursing homes statewide. Simultaneously, researchers with the UC Davis Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing will document how the music-and-memory program affects the use of anti-psychotic medications, as well as its effect on caregivers and staff.

Currently, 50 nursing homes are signed up and trained, including Eskaton Care Center Greenhaven in Sacramento. CAHF is accepting applications for 150 more facilities through this fall.

Launched in 2010, the Music & Memory nonprofit has trained staffers in hundreds of elder-care facilities in Canada and the United States. This week, a 2014 documentary, “Alive Inside,” on Music & Memory’s work with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients is showing at Sacramento’s Tower Theatre. (See box on Page 6C.)

Dozens of other elder-care facilities in California are already using the music-and-memory program, including Snowline Hospice, whose staffers are loading up 50 iPods with personalized soundtracks for their dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. The hospice, based in Sacramento and Diamond Springs, is asking families to help select the “specific songs that are near and dear to the patient’s heart,” said Bonnie Davis, Snowline’s clinical volunteer services manager.

Because of a patient’s decline, “we sometimes can’t ask (the individual), so we’re asking their primary caregiver and families: ‘What music did your mom or dad really love? What was the song played at their wedding? What song did they dance around the kitchen with you?’ We look for those specific musical memories,” Davis said.

Snowline hopes to pair younger volunteers who can visit hospice dementia patients and engage them through music, Davis said.

Finding each person’s musical history is the key. Sometimes family members will bring in a patient’s favorite tunes on albums, cassettes or CDs. Or staffers will sit down with individual patients and walk through music genres, trying to elicit positive or negative responses.

At Eskaton Greenhaven, finding what meant the most to Silcott took some trial and error. Given Silcott’s baby boomer age, executive director Craig first started with songs from the ’60s and ’70s: The Beatles, Beach Boys, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac. Gloria turned thumbs down on all of them. It wasn’t until Craig checked with Silcott’s husband and discovered that their first date was country-western dancing that she switched tunes.

Today, Silcott’s playlist is a compilation of country classics, from George Jones to Patsy Cline to John Denver. For resident Polean Kimball, 79, it’s all Elvis Presley. And for 82-year-old Larry Dunston, the hit list includes Aretha Franklin, B.B. King and other blues musicians.

Until he was selected as one of 15 dementia patients to participate, Dunston, a former communications specialist at McClellan Air Force base, rarely spoke or interacted with caregivers or his fellow residents, Eskaton staffers said. But when headphones were slipped on so he could listen to his blues playlist, he cracked a smile and said a few words. “It was the first time I ever heard him speak,” said Craig.

His ex-wife, who still visits him several times a week, says the difference is dramatic. “He lights up like a Christmas tree,” said Laura Johnson, who was married to Dunston for 26 years. “He’s snapping his fingers, tapping his foot. It means the world to him.”

The music memory connection also is a boost for a patient’s caregivers and family members.

“The atmosphere in the nursing home begins to change,” said CAHF’s Montgomery. “Caregivers who lost that connection because (patients) are not responsive, they now feel more of a relationship. Morale improves. Family members come more often; they bring the kids.”

Laura Johnson’s weekly visits to her former husband can be stressful because he isn’t always responsive and she can’t always tell if she’s helping him feel better. “But with the music, it gives me a way to not be discouraged. I see the difference in him.”

Editor’s note: This story was changed May 24 to correct the location of the Alzheimer’s Association annual education conference. It will be held at the Sacramento Convention Center. The story has also been changed to correct the names of Gloria Silcott and Larry Dunston.

Claudia Buck: 916-321-1968, @Claudia_Buck

Music & Memory

What it is: A New York-based nonprofit that promotes music as a way to tap memories and reduce stress among patients living with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Using a personalized iPod playlist of favorite songs, caregivers place headsets on patients, helping prod memories and awaken verbal and social connections with family and medical providers.

Results: Music-and-memory programs don’t reverse or halt Alzheimer’s or dementia but anecdotally, those who’ve studied them say undeniable evidence exists that music prompts a response – even briefly – in patients who’ve been uncommunicative. UC Davis research has shown that memory and music are lodged in a part of the brain that’s the last to atrophy in Alzheimer’s patients.

Movie showing: “Alive Inside,” a documentary and audience award winner at the 2014 Sundance film festival, follows Alzheimer’s and dementia patients using the Music & Memory program. The film will be aired Thursday, May 19, in a special 6 p.m. showing at the Tower Theatre, 2508 Land Park Drive. The film’s director, Michael Rossato-Bennett, will introduce the movie, co-sponsored by the local Alzheimer’s Association office, Snowline Hospice and other groups that help dementia patients. Tickets are free online, with a suggested $10 donation. The public is invited to bring new or used iPods to donate.

Filmmaker Rossato-Bennett will also speak Thursday, May 19, at the Alzheimer’s Association annual education conference, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sacramento Convention Center, 1400 J St..

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