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Music reconnects people with Alzheimer's, dementia

Published On: Apr 29 2014 07:11:26 AM CDT
Updated On: Apr 29 2014 03:24:44 PM CDT

The Wisconsin Music and Memory Program is helping train nursing home staff to personalize playlists for people diagnosed with Alzheimer's or other related dementia.


At the memory unit in St. Mary's Care Center in Madison, everyone has a Grandpa Dave.

His name is David O'Dea. His daughter, Colleen Potter, paid him a visit on an April day, but he can't always remember her.

"The relationship has changed because now I'm acting as the parent and he's more like my charge. But he spent many years taking care of me and I'll spend however many years I need taking care of him," said Potter as she sat on a hospital bed next to her father who was sitting in a recliner.

O'Dea has Alzheimer's disease. This means there are days he has trouble waking up or is very quiet and reserved. This was not one of those days.

Potter said she appreciates the times she can see her dad's personality again.

A former radioman who served in World War II, O'Dea also played the organ, the recorder and sang in the church choir with his wife Dorothy.

His daughter said with him music was the last thing to go, but at 94 years old the music is coming back.

O'Dea is 1 of 15 residents at St. Mary's Care Center with an iPod and a personalized playlist of music. The iPod came from the Wisconsin Music and Memory Program, part of a national effort in which nursing home staff are trained to personalize playlists for people diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease or other related dementia.

It is not music therapy because it does not treat the disease. Instead, the program takes advantage of the benefits of music.

As a certified nursing assistant helped O'Dea turn on his iPod, the faint sound of Frank Sinatra filled the room. O'Dea began humming along, seemingly happy.

This was the first time Potter saw and heard his reaction to the iPod. 

"I was amazed because in the past he hasn't had much of a reaction to music. He wasn't singing. He had completely forgotten music although it was the last thing he forgot. Now all of sudden he's remembering again and that's giving him happiness," said Potter.

The reason why patients react the way they do to the music can be found at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Professor Dale B. Taylor, who's on the Board of Aging and Long Term Care and the Wisconsin Music and Memory Advisory Group, has helped lead research into music and neuroscience for more than two decades.

"It's not magic, it's very scientific," said Taylor when asked why people with dementia react to familiar music.

He went on to say music is the only stimulus known to activate the entire human brain.

"It can access connections that have been made that haven't be used for a while, and if a part is damaged the brain has the ability to reroute through making new connections on damaged parts of the brain itself," explained Taylor.

The video of a functional MRI he shared shows in real time one person's brain as they hear music.

"When that's happening those neural connections, which we call neuroplasticity or brain plasticity, that's just the process of making those connections and that happens throughout life. Even in for a person with dementia in the undamaged parts of the brain it's still capable of making new connections," said Taylor.

Taylor said his work began because of his frustrations studying music therapy and belief there was another reason behind its inner workings. On a more personal level, Taylor was put in a coma and suffered severe brain damage from a car accident in college.

"But I made a full recovery and I wanted to know why. Now I understand part of it was because I was a music major," explained Taylor.

Currently, Alzheimer's disease has no cure.

Potter will continue to visit her father and remind him of who she is. But she said that is okay, and the music helps.

"Really it doesn't matter if he remembers or doesn't remember as long as he's happy," said Potter.

The Wisconsin Music and Memory Program was first announced in late January. Nursing home staff had to go through training before working with residents to create playlists.

The Department of Health Services said they hope to have another 150 nursing homes participate by summer 2014.

Click here to learn more about Wisconsin's Music and Memory Program

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