Anna Cooley spends most of her days in bed or a wheelchair, not speaking and locked in the isolation of Alzheimer’s disease. The 82-year-old lives at the Comprehensive Care Center, where staff works to engage her by talking to her and involving her in activities. Most of the time, she is withdrawn and stranded in her mind.
Anna was chosen to participate in a new Comprehensive Care Ccenter (CCC) program, designed to improve the quality of life for people suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia disorders.
The CCC is participating in the Music & Memory Project, a $1.4 million statewide program administered by the California Association of Health Facilities. The project studies the impact of music on quality of life and whether hearing tunes familiar from a person’s life can reduce depression, increase social interaction and decrease the need for medication. The CCC received 15 iPod shuffles, 15 headphones, a laptop, two iTunes gift cards and a speaker.
“It’s a good way to individualize care and improve quality of life,” says CCC Administrator Katie Ellis. The iPods are programmed specifically for each resident, with specialized playlists meant to unlock memories lost to age and dementia. The music might be the songs played at their wedding, a favorite family tune or a singer from their youth. “It sounds like a worthwhile program,” said Anna’s son, Chuck. “Medically and psychologically speaking, we should have a good outcome from it. We’ll see if this might help bring back some kind of recognition to her memory.”
Music was a common feature in their home –Elvis and Hank Williams -- and in his mother’s childhood. When a set of earphones was placed over Anna’s ears recently, she was at first unresponsive, her eyes closed. An Elvis song began and Mary’s eyes opened almost immediately. She smiled slightly. As the song went on, her blanket-covered feet appeared to move.
For resident Dolores Hansen, dementia has trapped her in a tormented, distressed world, where she speaks in an agitated way to those whom she believes is causing her harm. But with Music & Memory, her attitude was transformational.
Activities employee Joe Lugo played Frank Sinatra on a speaker (Dolores hates the headphones) and the blind woman kissed Joe’s hand, saying repeatedly, “Oh my god, it’s Sinatra. Dear God, I’m so in love with him.” Later, she clutched Joe’s hand, singing along in perfect time with Sinatra, at times mistaking Joe for Rat Pack singer. “Oh my god, he came to see me,” she said to herself, stroking Joe’s arm.
Anna and Dolores are among the five residents in the pilot program; some have behaviors related to late stages of dementia, while others are isolated and don’t participate in activities. One resident is so soothed by the music on his iPod that he falls asleep, often sitting in Ellis’ office.
Ben Dunson, a fan of swing, jazz, and the blues, moved his arms, bobbed his leg and smiled when B.B. King was played.
With one resident, the time right before meals tends to cause great agitation. Now, with Music & Memory, staff turn on her iPod about a half-hour before mealtimes and diffuse the anxiety. This allows more meaningful social interaction during mealtimes, Ellis said. “This means there’s quality of life for each one of these people,” Ellis explained. “Even if for a brief moment, their life is improved. They’re not distressed. They’re eating more. They’re living. It’s great to see the staff engaged. They’re used to seeing a resident who now eats without help. They’re enjoying those successes.”
In the more than a month that the iPods have been in use, CCC staff have seen the improved behavior, increased mobility, and better appetites.
The CCC is one of about 3,000 organizations across the world to have completed Music & Memory certification.
The CCC is also accepting donations of used iPods and iTunes gift cards to help defray future costs. “I don’t want this to be just for 15 people,” Ellis said. “I want to be able to offer it to everyone. That’s my goal – to bring this joy to everybody.”