Music helps trigger Alzheimer patients’ memories
12th May 2014 · 0 Comments
By John Carlson
MUNCIE, Ind. (Special to the Associated Press from The Star-Press) — It was early Sunday afternoon when Mike Gerhard and Abby Urbick encountered Gene Hart, an 82-year-old man wearing a blue Colts sweatshirt and a Black Cardinals baseball cap, in a hall of the Alzheimer’s wing in The Woodlands nursing home.
Would he like to hear some gospel music?
“Absotively posilutely!” Hart happily replied with an intentional tongue-twister, following Gerhard, a Ball State University telecommunications professor, and Urbick, a telecommunications major, into a nearby break room. While hooking up two pairs of lightweight headphones to a splitter and a tiny iPod Shuffle, they tried to engage Hart, whose Alzheimer’s was diagnosed in 2008 and has been judged as advanced, in conversation.
What work had he done in life? Despite his fluidity of speech, his rambling response offered no answer.
Did he have children? He thought so, but didn’t know how many.
Was he married?
“Oh, I think so,” he said, pondering the question, then added, “I really don’t know if I’m married or not.”
And then, the song “Amazing Grace” began flowing through the headphones, both his and the connected pair that Urbick wore. Suddenly, with his face dissolving in joyful tears, he began singing the song, pretty much word for word, looking skyward and raising his hands with emotion. Laying a comforting hand on his shoulder, the BSU student began singing along with him as other hymns followed, including ‘”Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” Sometimes Hart cried “Hallelujah!” and sometimes he drummed his fists against his chest, but always he sang.
In the months since Gerhard launched Music & Memory-Muncie, he has seen time and time again how music, coupled with the love, care and respect shown these elderly patients by his group of telecommunications students, most of whom are freshmen, brings them out of the fog in which they exist.
Granted, the effect is temporary.
“But them coming back to reality for a little bit, it’s priceless to us,” Gerhard told The Star Press.
Indeed, this day, after maybe 40 minutes of music, Hart seemed to be living in the moment, enough so that when someone suggested ending the session with a prayer, he was up to the task, closing his eyes and delivering one that, in its own way, seemed hauntingly appropriate to what had just happened.
“Heavenly father,” he prayed, momentarily halting to find the words, “we release all hindrances and sleep in the fringe of God.”
What’s more, this man who less than an hour before didn’t remember whether he was married, now remembered he was, and even recalled his wife’s name: Vivian Marie.
The program, Music & Memory, is a national one based on the notion that music can change the lives of nursing home residents suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and more. A man with an almost religious fervor for the rights and welfare of the elderly, Gerhard learned about the program last summer, played a video about it to a freshman class he was teaching during the second week of school, and was amazed at the response.
“Twelve kids stepped up,” he said, and three months later they were holding their first fundraiser, seeking the money needed to buy iPods, plus other equipment like headphones and splitters, as well as to download music from iTunes. It is, he said, the first such student chapter of the group to be formed.
The Woodlands was chosen for this initial effort because Gerhard’s late father had been a resident there for six years.
“I walk by the room where he died every time I come here,” he said.
This day, the group of young men and women gathered in a small room of the nursing home for the regular pre-meeting, grabbing clipboards and learning who they would be working with, asking about their lives, their music preferences and more. In as little as five minutes after an interview, a resident’s favorite music can be downloaded on their personal iPod.
“What we do, for each resident we have an iTunes account and personal play list,” Gerhard explained, recalling one of the first Alzheimer’s patients they encountered, and asking about her music preference. “She didn’t say anything. Then all of a sudden she blurted out, ‘Stevie Wonder!’ And she loves it. We hear she’s talking more.”
All this has been nothing short of miraculous to Katie Lucas, The Woodlands’ social worker and director of its Alzheimer’s unit.
“I love it, I love it,” she said, while nearby Hart sang another hymn, his face contorted with feeling. “It’s their own personal music. We don’t use it on anyone but them.”
The students have been wonderful, she added, noting they have been a blessing to the staff, too, but particularly to the residents.
“There are areas of the brain where the music gets to,” Lucas said, trying to explain what happens on the Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays the students come. “It brings out that innermost personality (in the residents) that we don’t always see.”
What you are witnessing when the students and residents engage, she added, is love.
“The kids have unconditional love for the residents,” Lucas said, but added the residents are also teaching valuable lessons to the students. “All of them have something to teach these kids, even the ones with the most dementia. They are teaching them that what they do has a big impact … even on the least of us.”
Leaving Hart’s session, it seemed groups of students surrounding a happy nursing home resident were everywhere you looked.
“We’ve got these stories going on all over here,” Gerhard said.
Indeed, it was happening in the dining area, where three students surrounded one beaming woman as her music played. In the hallway, one hunched-over resident sat in an easy chair, listening to “Great Balls of Fire,” smiling broadly as Devin Puckett and Kayla Mapes hovered protectively nearby.
Near them, 89-year-old Ruth Pierce, a patient with dementia, listened to Elvis and managed to dance joyously while seated in her wheelchair, the students around her gripping her hands, sharing her dance.
“She digs rock!” Gerhard said with a laugh, noting Pierce’s music also included some Elton John and Aretha Franklin tunes, before commenting on her enthusiastic movement, which was another benefit of all this. “Even a little exercise is good for you.”
Pierce, meanwhile, asked student Tyler Sparkman to dance, remarking, “He’s a good-looking guy,” and in short order he was among her partners.
As president of the group, Sparkman had addressed the students during the pre-meeting, finally sending them on their way with their motto, “Spread the music and spark the memories.” Later, he said this work was the perfect antidote for the “me, me, me” attitude that so often grips our society.
“I absolutely love coming in here,” he said. “To see the residents come alive, it brings so much goodness to my heart. When we come in and work for two or three hours, we can’t think about ourselves. When we leave here, we leave with a big smile on our face, knowing we have brought pure happiness and joy.”
The same held true with Urbick, who had sung so sweetly with Hart, and who Gerhard described as someone who has a “magical ability to connect to an Alzheimer’s or a dementia patient.”
“It’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen in my life,” she said, simply, of the program.
“These kids inspire me constantly,” the professor said. “They renew your faith in the next generation.”
Judging from the ecstatic look on Pierce’s face, she felt the same as she danced, for these few minutes the center of attention among these visiting students, who seemed so happy to share their time with her.
Just then, student Sadie Lebo broke away to report to Gerhard about Pierce.
“She said it was the happiest day of her life,” Lebo said.
It was in a meeting room several halls away that a number of the students, some residents and a staff member or two now gathered to hear 81-year-old Charles Wilburn sing and play. Better known as Don by some, and “Sug” — that being short for “Sugar” — by others, he has spent a lifetime as a musician, even playing for servicemen on the streets of Baltimore as a nine-year-old during World War II.
Of sound mind but ailing body, he had come to The Woodlands but left his beloved Martin guitar behind. Then, encountering the Sound & Memory-Muncie team, he listened to their music and became inspired.
Wilburn wanted his guitar back.
Now a favorite of Gerhard and the students, he would serenade them with everything from Elvis to Hank, stooped over yet managing to swivel his hips on “One Night With You,” much to the delight of the women watching, who ranged in age from 19 to 90.
“Here’s one you sing at a pettin’ party or a poker game,” Wilburn said of “You Win Again,” then sang a sad song about a dog named “Old Shep,” explaining, “My dad sang this to me, and every time he sang it I cried.”
Gerhard knew the feeling.
“If we don’t cry at least once here,” he said with a laugh, explaining the raw emotion this sort of program generates, “we don’t think it’s a successful day. … About half the equation is music. Part of our mission is love, compassion and mercy. To me, the moral lessons are what’s so important.”
In describing the work of his students, the professor cited The Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi, which asks that where there is doubt, let him sow faith, where there is despair, hope, where there is darkness, light, and where there is sadness, joy.
“They are living that prayer,” Gerhard said of his students.
For Hart, whose musical love is hymns, that truth would have been obvious, at least at one time in his life. Family members later said he had been a minister. Now? Who knew? But even with advanced Alzheimer’s, he was aware that this day, he had been touched in a special, special way.
“I don’t know where that’s coming from,” he said of the music, as the headphones were adjusted over his ears, “but I love it!”
This article originally published in the May 12, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.