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Community Health

Music Helps Alzheimer’s Patients Access Memories

ent at Linn High School, helps Beverly Milburn with her music selection at Linn Community Nursing Home. Beier and other students volunteer with the program, which uses music to soothe people with Alzheimer's disease.
MARCY OEHMKE
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Linn High School
Brooke Beier, right, a student at Linn High School, helps Beverly Milburn with her music selection at Linn Community Nursing Home. Beier and other students volunteer with the program, which uses music to soothe people with Alzheimer's disease.

Clay County, in north central Kansas, has the nation's highest rate of people on Medicare diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. At 22 percent, it’s roughly double the rate in surrounding counties, as well as state and national averages.

The Linn Community Nursing Home north of Clay Center is one of about two dozen in Kansas participating in a program called Music and Memory. Residents with Alzheimer’s are given iPods loaded with music tailored to their preferences.

 

This story was originally published by Heartland Health Monitor, a reporting collaboration focused on health issues and their impact in Missouri and Kansas.

Dozens of students from tiny Linn High School have volunteered to help.

Just before Christmas, junior Kaitlyn Ohlde was going through a playlist with resident Lila Schaefer.

“Would you like to listen to some Christmas music?” Ohlde asked. Lila responded with an enthusiastic, “Oh, yes!”

And even though Lila had a tooth removed just a few hours earlier, she sang along as “Silent Night” played on her headphones.

Martha Hornbostel directs the Music and Memory program at the Linn nursing home. She explained that Lila and many other people with Alzheimer’s or dementia tend to become agitated as evening approaches — a phenomenon known as “sundowning.” 

“She can be so happy and so bouncy, and then come sundown time, she’s wailing because she’s just anxious,” Hornbostel said. “So I loaded an iPod real quick with her type of music, walked right out to her and said … ‘Let’s put some music on.’ And, oh, she was continuing to wail. As soon as I put the iPod on and the headphones on, she sat up a little straighter and she quit.”

Dr. Russel Swerdlow, director of the University of Kansas Alzheimer’s Disease Center, says the music therapy program isn’t going to halt the disease’s progress. But he says it may help soothe patients by keeping them connected to some of their memories.

“If people used to dance to a certain kind of music, that motor memory is stored in a different part of the brain than the episodic memory that is destroyed in Alzheimer’s disease,” he says. “This procedural memory is preserved much further on into the course of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Nurses at the Linn Community Nursing Home said some residents like Lila are able to use music instead of mood-altering drugs to manage their emotions.

Interest in the program is growing. The Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services recently announced $38,000 in grants to bring the Music and Memory program to 30 more nursing homes across Kansas.

Bryan Thompson is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.