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Program offers music to soothe dementia
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Program offers music to soothe dementia

At Daughters of Israel, personalized playlists for agitated residents

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Marcia Valese helped her husband Steve, 56, put on his headphones on a patio at the Daughters of Israel nursing home in West Orange. As he listened on an iPod to a playlist she had compiled — songs by country favorites like Brad Paisley and Rascal Flatts — his body relaxed, and he smiled.

“It’s the first time I’ve seen him use the music,” Marcia Valese said. “He seems happier.”

Steve, who has early onset Alzheimer’s disease, has lived at Daughters of Israel, a beneficiary agency at Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, for about a year. He is one of 20 residents selected to participate in a pilot project, begun in April, called Music and Memory. It marks the first implementation of the program in a skilled nursing care facility in New Jersey.

Developed by social worker Dan Cohen in a New York nursing home in 2006, the program aims to bring people with dementia back to themselves through personalized play lists.

“The idea is that when people are anxious or agitated, the music will be soothing for them,” said Janet Been, director of specialized dementia care at DOI.

Other benefits, according to the Music and Memory organization website, include increasing cooperation, enhancing engagement and socialization, and reducing reliance on medication.

The program is now in use at 140 nursing facilities around the country and in Canada. A documentary, Alive Inside: The Story of Music and Memory, was screened in 2012. The Music and Memory organization provides training and certification to facilities that want to incorporate the program into their therapies.

Implementing the program, even with the support of Music and Memory, the 501(c)(3) supporting the project, has its challenges. Staffers must rely on family members to provide playlists, and sometimes they don’t know the patient’s favorite music. Other times, they might just know a genre, like classical music. “That’s the most difficult genre because it’s so broad. What kind of classical music did mom like? The families don’t always know,” said Rachel Block, director of activities, who has been implementing the program, made possible locally by the Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation

As Been and several other staff members walked through the residential area with a visitor, they greeted Hansy Mayer, wearing her headphones. A Holocaust survivor originally from Austria, Mayer greeted Been, telling her as she pointed to the headphones, “It’s a little loud.”

Eventually, they get the volume just right. Mayer moved to the music on her playlist, which in her case is generally show tunes, and she said, “It’s lovely.”

Across the hall, another woman listened to gospel music. “In the afternoon, she experiences what is known as ‘sundowning,’” explained Been. “She gets very confused, and she looks for her babies. She gets agitated. As an adult, she not only had her own children but she also took care of other people’s kids. She’s constantly searching for babies.

“But when she puts the music on, she calms down, and she sings along. She still knows all the words.” Been added, “It’s amazing. People with mid-stage dementia, whom you can barely have a conversation with, somehow, listening to music, they know all the words and sing along.”

But not everyone wants to participate. Miriam, who Been described as a resident who is “anxious all the time” has refused to try the music. “I don’t care for the iPod,” she said as she walked by.

Block sees all kinds of potential for assembling playlists on listening devices for residents beyond music, from creating sounds from family Passover seders to playing broadcasts of old-time radio shows and comedy routines. She also said she hopes to expand the program to many more DOI residents.

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