As the first notes of an ’80s rock song sounded, a wide smile crept across Sidney Toll’s face, and he began tapping his foot to the rhythm.
“It’s pretty cool,” Toll said of his iPod, which is loaded with a list of songs specific to his musical taste, which ranges from classic rock-n-roll to the soundtrack from “High School Musical.”
The iPods and personalized playlists are part of a new music therapy program launched this spring by Developmental Services of Northwest Kansas. The program primarily is structured toward residents with dementia and offered at a group home in Victoria.
Dementia is a chronic mental disorder marked by memory loss, changes in personality and impaired reasoning. Music has been recognized as an effective therapy tool, as a person’s favorite songs often are associated with past events and provide a calming effect, said Allison Krier, the home’s residential coordinator.
“It’s meant to bring back those happy memories,” Krier said. “A lot of times, people with dementia relive past events rather than living in the reality we are today.”
DSNWK’s group home in Victoria was restructured two years ago to meet the needs of residents with dementia. A variety of other therapies are offered in the home as well, with the goal of helping residents improve their quality of life.
The music therapy program was implemented with help from a recent grant, and Krier has been certified by the Music and Memory program. Krier and other staff members talk to the residents and their loved ones to identify their favorite music and hobbies so they can create a playlist just for them.
Some residents also enjoy listening to podcasts about their favorite topics, such as Kansas sports teams, she said.
“I have somebody who loves show tunes. So every single song on their iPod is show tunes,” Krier said. “He will just sit over there for half an hour, and just tap his foot and sing along to it. Each person is definitely diverse and different.”
Hays Good Samaritan Society also has seen success with a similar music and video therapy program in its New Dimensions unit, which also is geared toward residents with dementia diagnoses.
The nursing home uses portable CD players to play residents’ favorite music songs and genres during the therapy sessions. The music seems to be calming and uplifting to many residents, and the staff has seen a reduction in falls and what they call the “domino effect” that occurs when one patient becomes agitated and then agitates others, said Kathy Moravek, director of social services for New Dimensions.
The program also has been linked to improvement in mood and behavior and even reduction in medications use. When used correctly, the music therapy can be used to help curb possible difficulties before they begin, Moravek said.
“You know your residents. You know what’s going to set them off, and it’s a way of providing them tactile music and video therapies before they ever escalate,” she said. “It’s been very successful.”
The most popular videos include calming scenes from nature, such as flowers or baby animals.
For dementia patients, it’s often the short-term memory that deteriorates first, but they still remember events from earlier in life.
“It can be very therapeutic. It’s a connection to the past,” Moravek said. “A lot of of our residents lose their short-term memory first … but the long-term is in tact. And that’s when they sang in school, they sang their kids to sleep, they sang in Sunday school. And music was just such a part of that.”
The unit can hold 16 patients and usually is full to capacity. Staff also works closely with a patient’s families and collects items from the person’s past that might be comforting and familiar as part of its dementia therapy program.
Those items often include family photographs, but have ranged from old newspaper articles to baseball mitts and even welding helmets. The patients’ families often become acquainted with each other and enjoy the peer support as they navigate the often difficult diagnosis, she said.
“They need to rub elbows with other family members who are going through the same thing, because the Alzheimer’s or dementia process is not pretty,” Moravek said. “There’s no clear-cut steps what they’re going to do next; everything is unpredictable.”
The residents also enjoy the live-in therapy cat, a cuddly Siamese named Jade.
When it comes to the music, each resident is provided with sounds unique to their preferences and personal history. One resident sang in church, and loves listening to Gospel music, while others prefer big bands, and another sings along to her all-time favorite, Jimmy Dorsey.
“It’s been a success,” Moravek said. “I mean, how could it not if you’ve got Jimmy Dorsey playing and that was her favorite, and she’s singing ‘Tangerine’ out loud. You know you’re doing something right.”