The Best Of…Music Reduces Alzheimer’s Patients’ Agitation

Published August 19, 2002, Pawtucket Times

        After not being home for two years, I traveled to Dallas to visit my family and to celebrate my 88-year old father’s birthday party last week.

        My trip was a bittersweet experience for me as I reconnected with my parents and siblings.  It was great to spend time and catch up with everyone, but I saw firsthand how Alzheimer’s Disease had ravaged, both physically and mentally, my 80-year-old mother, and I saw the impact the disease had on my family.

        My mother, who is in the mid-to-late stage of Alzheimer’s was largely unaware of recent events or even to who I was.

         There was no recognition of my brother or sisters, and many times she did not even recognize my father, who has been her husband for the past 60 years.

         My mother could not tell time on her watch,was not aware of what day it was or even where she lived.

         Moreover, the staff warned me of my frequent mood swings and that she could get agitated very quickly.

         However, some say “music calms the savage beast.”

         That may be true, and it’s most certainly true for victims of Alzheimer’s disease — soothing music can reduce agitation.  While Alzheimer’s robs a person of their memory or cognitive abilities, a timeless tune can reduce agitation and can have calming positive effects on Alzheimer’s patients, too.  This point was driven home to me following my visit to my mother’s 28-bed Alzheimer’s unit at Dallas-base Marriott Brighton Gardens.

         On Friday afternoons, Carrie A. Johns of Blue Rose Entertainment keeps things hopping in the Alzheimer’s unit’s television room with her music therapy program.

        Popping CDs into a compact disc player, Johns plays a continuous string of popular tunes from the early 1900s to the 1960s.  That day, about 20 songs were played, ranging from golden oldies to country and western and Broadway tuns.

       Johns chooses from 8,000 songs in her CD collection, and she often selects songs during her one-and-a-half-hour program that reflect memorable happy periods in the residents’ lives.

       Johns, who raises Arabian horses on a 12-acre ranch in Mabank, Teaxa, has a client list of more than 500 nursing facilities, assisted living facilities and senior centers in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex region.

       Swaying, Johns sings the Andrews Sisters’ 1942 hit “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company C” into her microphone, residents Rose Grimes, Helen Webb and Francis  Donathan dance up a storm with Ashina Jackson, a personal care assistant, big smiles lighting up all of their faces.

       “It is a joy to make these residents happy when their families are not here,” Jackson tells me.  “I like to see their expressions when they remember the tunes. It’s like I’m going back to their time.”

         To the beat of the 1920s tune “in’t She Sweet,” Activity Director Dave Mandt dances with my mother.

         She belts out the song remembering all the words, not even missing a beat.

          Jane Atobajeun, special care manager, says music helps to calm the residents down.  While residents with Alzheimer’s disease don’t remember recent events — what they ate for lunch, for instance — they will remember songs that were once popular in distant eras, since they can retain long-term memory.

       “Music makes them laugh,” adds Atobajeun, noting that it “touches their very being and also triggers me memories and emotions.”

       According to Atobajeun, throughout the day residents can get frustrated if they can’t remember things.

       But singing makes them very happy because they remember the words.  Dancing can also get the residents up and moving, she adds, noting that even wheelchair-bound residents are assisted to stand and move.

       Throughout the program my father and I traded off dancing with my mother.  Several times, my smiling mother goes up to the microphone, and dances with Johns.

       You guessed it — she automatically knows every word of the song.  When the music ends, I say goodbye to my mother.

       knowing the challenges she faces with Alzheimer’s, I at least know that there is a brief period of pleasure in her life — at least twice a week when she attends the Alzheimer’s unit’s music program.

        Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer covering aging, health care and medical issues.  This article was published in the August 19, 2002 Pawtucket Times.