From time to time, medical-transport providers in Johnston County will play music for patients headed to and from doctor offices.
For one frequent rider who suffers from dementia, a gospel song always helps when she’s agitated, said Jason Thompson, manager of Johnston Ambulance Service in Smithfield.
“It calms her right down,” Thompson said. “She goes to a happy place, and the rest of the trip is uneventful.”
Thompson said the connection between music, memory and attitude is real. He’s seen it firsthand.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
A new documentary, “Alive Inside,” is giving more people a glimpse at the link between sounds and the brain. The film, which shows how personalized iPod play lists can aid dementia patients, is serving as the impetus for a regional initiative that’s putting MP3 players in the hands of seniors. Now, five area Rotary clubs are teaming up to bring the same program to elder-care facilities in Johnston County.
The plan, which will start with screenings of the documentary in coming months, could boost the number of seniors who use iPods for therapy. The program is already in place in Chatham, Orange, Durham and Wake counties.
Debuting earlier this year, “Alive Inside” follows social worker Dan Cohen, who shows how his New York-based nonprofit, Music & Memory, uses beloved songs to reinvigorate those with memory loss. Cohen’s program, which he founded in 2010, shows facilities across the nation how to develop personalized iPod play lists for residents.
In the film, viewers meet people like Henry, a man who says little and hunches over in his wheelchair. However, when his caregiver hands him a personalized iPod, he sits up – eyes wide open – and starts to hum and rock back and forth. Henry is more talkative, too, and starts to recall his favorite musicians.
Music & Memory says songs linked to important or personal events in a person’s life can trigger memories of the experience. Music, the group says, also calms brain activity, allowing listeners to focus on the present moment.
Clayton architect Doug McClentic said seniors in Johnston County need to have access to the therapy. McClentic, whose grandfather died of early-onset Alzheimer’s, is leading the push to bring Music & Memory to local elder-care facilities.
“It opens a window into their mind and enables them to be more communicative, more social and more active,” said McClentic, who was in third grade when his grandfather died. “It’s literally astounding that something as simple as music can have such a humongous effect on someone’s brain.”
A Rotary committee in Johnston plans to launch a pilot program at a nursing home, an assisted-living center and with an at-home care group. That will require money, and McClentic said fundraising has already started. The group hopes to get donations at the upcoming movie screenings and through Operation Forget-Me-Not Sunshine, an effort started by McClentic’s wife, Kelli-Ann.
To donate, search “JoCo Alzheimer’s Music and Memory Project” or “Operation Forget-Me-Not Sunshine” on Facebook.
Across the Triangle, dozens of seniors are already listening to personalized play lists. In Chatham County, for instance, seniors in six elder-care facilities are using iPods.
“It’s been a godsend for some folks,” said Amy Gorely, director of strategic initiatives and outreach at the Pittsboro retirement community Carolina Meadows.
After helping launch a countywide effort last fall, Gorely said, Carolina Meadows spent about $8,000 to help certify facilities and buy iPods. She said seniors listen to music during nurse shift changes, which has made transitions easier. Other residents wear their headphones when they wake up, go to bed or exercise.
In January, a former bluegrass band manager, Billy Herndon, was one of the first participants in the Music & Memory program during his daily visits to Piedmont Health SeniorCare in Pittsboro. His family said he enjoyed the old-timey music so much that they bought him an iPod to use at home.
The Triangle J Area Agency on Aging started the “Music in My Mind” initiative to help other counties throughout the region add Music & Memory. Charlotte Terwilliger, one of five ombudsmen for the program, said she’s already seen a difference at the facilities she’s visited.
“Some of these folks are those who had a lot of management issues around their behavior,” Terwilliger said. “They are calm now, and their whole quality of life has improved.”
While feedback has been positive, setting up the personalized play lists has been tricky. People with dementia might not easily recall the artists or songs they once enjoyed, and finding the right genre can be time consuming.
“It takes a lot of investigation, and sometimes it takes sitting down with people, playing the music and seeing which song they react to,” Gorely said.
More than 170,000 seniors in North Carolina have Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia. That number is expected to grow to 300,000 by 2030, according to the state Division of Aging and Adult Services.
In addition, a state survey found that about half of North Carolina’s caregivers say the people they care for have memory loss or confusion.
Thompson, the Johnston Ambulance Service manager, said memory loss is common in patients he transports. Many of them, he said, could likely benefit from the Music & Memory therapy.
“Dealing with patients, sometimes they can’t speak, but you know they understand,” Thompson said. “It’s very frustrating to see someone you know who would like to speak and convey a message, but they can’t.”