The Healing Power of Music

(The following excerpts are from AARP Bulletin, July/August 2015, Vol. 56, No. 6., by Mary Ellen Geist)
Mindy Smith, therapist at an Alzheimer’s care facility says to patient-resident Naomi, “Do you want your music?” Naomi’s face brightens as headphones are gently placed over her ears. And as a big band arrangement of George Gershwin’s “‘S Wonderful” flows from her iPod, Naomi begins to smile. Scenes like this are being repeated in nursing facilities and homes across America.
Music therapists who work with Alzheimer’s patients describe seeing people “wake up” when the sounds of loved and familiar music fills their heads. Often, after months or even years of not speaking at all, they begin to talk again, become more social and seem more engaged by their surroundings. Some begin to remember names long forgotten. Some even do what Alzheimer’s patients often cannot do as their disease worsens: They remember who they are.
More than 5 million people in the U.S. have Alzheimer’s, a disease for which there is no cure. One in 8 boomers will get the disease, according to estimates. Researchers are finding new ways to use music as part of the treatment of dementia.
Connie Tomaino is one of music therapy’s pioneers. More than 37 years ago, she walked into a dementia unit carrying her guitar and looked at the patients. “Many were overmedicated. Half of them were catatonic and had feeding tubes. The ones that were agitated had mitts on their hands and were tied to wheelchairs,” she says. “I just started singing ‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart.’ Many of the people who were considered to be catatonic lifted up their heads and looked at me. And the people who were agitated stopped being upset. Most of them started singing the words to the song.”
She founded the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function to encourage study of the effects of music on the brain. “Music is very complex,” she says. “The auditory nerve has an immediate contact to part of the brain called the amygdala-what’s often called the ‘fight or flight’ area of the brain. So the immediate thing with sound is arousal. The person becomes startled or suddenly pays attention.”
Tomaino found that even some late-stage Alzheimer’s sufferers could respond to songs meaningful to them. “One woman who was nonverbal-after one month, she started speaking again. She said things like, ‘The kids are coming, I have to get home to make dinner.’ They were memories and words elicited by the songs.” Her advice: If someone you know is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, start associating key songs with family members or important ideas. Later, those songs may trigger that association.
Music therapy programs are a critical part of care in several states and cities. In Wisconsin, two-thirds of the state’s nursing homes use personalized playlists of music as part of daily caregiving routines. Tom Hlavacek, director of the Southeastern Wisconsin Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, says something unexpected happened when the program began: a drastic reduction in the use of psychotropic drugs.” “Three years ago, when they started ranking states’ use of psychotropic drugs in nursing homes, Wisconsin came in 14th,” he said. “Now we’re fourth in the country. We’re way ahead of the curve.”
A choir has been formed in Minneapolis from people living with Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases and their caregivers. The cofounder of the Giving Voice Chorus, Mary Lenard, says so much of the disease involves “things they can no longer do or navigate. So the choir is something they can do. They can be joyful and laugh and sing and be part of this new community.” One choir member told Lenard, “When I’m here, it’s like I don’t have Alzheimer’s.”
Jewish Family Services in Utah hopes personalized music can keep Alzheimer’s patients at home with their loved ones longer. “We’re one of just a few agencies in the U.S. that’s doing this more home-based than institution-based,” executive director Ellen Silver says. Alzheimer’s hits married couples particularly hard. “Some other kinds of intimacy are lost,” she said. “What I’ve seen this music do is create an intimacy that is so meaningful to the caregiver.”
Dan Cohen, who was trained as a social worker in New York, runs a program called Music and Memory. He uses webinars to teach elder-care professionals how to set up personalized playlists delivered to patients on digital devices. Cohen says, “Unfortunately, as a society, we view persons with advanced dementia as no longer being able to experience pleasure. Music obliterates that misconception.” Cohen’s program now operates in more than 1,000 locations across the U.S. and Canada and in a dozen caregiving facilities in eight other countries.
Kathleen Keller uses iPods and headsets to help take care of her 93-year-old father and mother, who both have dementia. They listen to Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Patti Page and Louis Armstrong. She plays personalized music for them during caregiving and calms her father during long doctor visits with his iPod. “For us, this gift of music has been an absolute delight,” she says. “And for me as a caregiver, it has been an absolute lifesaver.”