MILWAUKEE — Irene Wade doesn’t always remember her name, or her birthday, or her children’s faces. She’ll often stumble in the middle of a sentence and then burst into tears.
But one recent morning at a nursing home in Cedarburg, Wis., the 99-year-old sang the opening lines to “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” as if she were Ethel Merman. As if the gray-haired, bespectacled Alzheimer’s patients sitting in wheelchairs around her were audience members at Carnegie Hall.
The impromptu performance kicked off during breakfast at Lasata Care Center. Irene had been listening to Frank Sinatra on an iPod with headphones. She’s one of 15 Lasata residents participating in Music & Memory, a national program that brings personalized music into the lives of elderly dementia patients.
Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee launched the first large-scale study of the program.
It has been a huge success since its birth in a New York nursing home in 2006. Music & Memory spread to hundreds of facilities in 45 states and six countries.
Caregivers rave about the music’s ability to calm residents, lower their reliance on anti-anxiety and anti-depression medication and establish long-lost communication with friends and relatives.
“It has made a world of difference,” said Kathi Roberts, activities director at Lasata, one of the first nursing homes in the state selected for the program, earlier this year.
Since Irene started listening to an iPod loaded with her favorite songs, she has seemed calmer, Roberts said. Happier. Perkier.
She even grinned and shimmied her shoulders when a recent visitor complimented her on her singing voice.
“She’s hamming it up,” social worker Chrissy Pfeiffer said.
Delivering hand-picked playlists via recycled iPods is a modern twist on a tried-and-true method of care.
“We in music therapy have been observing this kind of thing for decades,” said Dale Taylor, a music therapist and faculty member at University of Wisconsin Eau Claire.
“It’s not magic, and it’s not a miracle,” he said in a video conference with Music & Memory nursing homes. “The miraculous thing is how the brain is made and how it operates.”
Recently the Wisconsin Department of Health Services received stacks of enthusiastic surveys from Lasata and scores of other participating facilities. The huge response prompted the state to expand the program to 150 additional nursing homes. Wisconsin now has more Music & Memory partners than any other state.
But while anecdotal evidence from caregivers and family members has been overwhelmingly positive — and an award-winning documentary about the program has attracted worldwide attention — the long-term effects of Music & Memory on mood and medication have yet to be evaluated.
Jung Kwak and Michael Brondino, two social scientists from UW-Milwaukee, hope to document these effects. They’ve partnered with the state to conduct an intensive study of 10 nursing homes participating in Music & Memory, and they plan to review statewide data from nursing homes in 2015 in order to get a comprehensive picture of how the program has affected residents.
The study’s findings could have significant consequences for how caregivers treat dementia patients, Kwak said. She hopes the use of music will become a widespread tool to reduce reliance on expensive and sometimes-deflating pharmaceutical drugs.
“This program allows us to see the person rather than the patient,” Kwak said. “We have a long way to go in how we care for people with dementia, but this is a step in the right direction.”
Roberts, who has worked at Lasata Care Center for two decades, has seen dramatic personality changes after residents started listening to music. Once, a man who hadn’t uttered a sound to his wife for years suddenly “woke up” during a country song, Roberts said.
“Dementia patients are still in there,” she said. “It’s our job to find the right trigger.”
For Jimmy, who bobs his head and grins whenever he listens to music, that trigger is Elvis Presley. For Phyllis, who closes her eyes and taps her right slipper to the beat, it’s big-band jazz.
For Irene, who is turning 100 soon, it’s music from the ’40s. Back then, she would have heard Ol’ Blue Eyes on a record player. Now, she uses a shiny red iPod Shuffle smaller than a deck of cards.
After admiring Irene’s voice, the visitor wondered what songs she had been playing, and attempted to borrow her headphones.
“You’re nuts!” Irene said, loudly and clearly. “Put that music back where it belongs.”
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