Karen Garloch

Music stirs memories for people with dementia

Rooney Robison 83, talks about how the iPod therapy has helped her husband, John Robison, 85, who has dementia. They live at Southminster.
Rooney Robison 83, talks about how the iPod therapy has helped her husband, John Robison, 85, who has dementia. They live at Southminster. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

It happens all the time. You can’t recall the lyrics to a familiar song until you hear the music. Then the words come flowing back, as if you’d never forgotten.

This phenomenon is at the heart of a new program at Southminster retirement community that uses personally meaningful music and digital technology to improve the quality of life for people whose memories are fading.

It’s working for John Robison, 85, a retired Charlotte businessman who lives in the south Charlotte complex. He suffers from dementia and has trouble with short-term memory. But when he dons the earphones to his iPod, his foot starts tapping and his eyes light up in recognition of songs by crooners Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole.

Robison’s wife, Rooney, 83, who also lives at Southminster, loves watching her husband get pleasure from the music.

“It’s so important for people with prolonged memory problems to be able to relate to something in the world that they can still enjoy,” she said. “Every connection you can make is rewarding for the family.”

Southminster is the first retirement center in Mecklenburg County to be certified to use the Music & Memory program, which is the subject of a documentary “Alive Inside,” about how music therapy can ease the suffering of people with Alzheimer’s disease.

The idea is that songs associated with important personal events can trigger memory for people with dementia, Parkinson’s disease and other diseases that damage brain chemistry. Calming music can enable the listener to focus and regain a connection to others. And ideally, it can also help replace or reduce the use of medicines for anxiety and depression.

At Southminster, four residents so far have been outfitted with iPods specifically programmed with music that has personal meaning. The center has also provided a $1,000 grant to train others to provide the music program at PACE of the Southern Piedmont, a nonprofit health care provider that helps the frail elderly remain in their homes. In the next month, 10 PACE clients will be using iPods.

“Alive Inside” tells the story of Dan Cohen, a New York social worker who founded Music & Memory in 2010. A few years earlier, Cohen had the idea to use iPods, which had been growing in popularity, to provide personalized music for nursing home residents. It was a hit with residents, staff and families and became the prototype for a bigger effort.

With a foundation grant in 2008, Cohen brought 200 iPods to residents of four New York long-term care facilities. Then came the documentary which made the program famous when a video clip of Henry, a nursing-home resident reawakened by listening to his Cab Calloway favorites, went viral.

Since the founding of Music & Memory, hundreds of care facilities throughout the United States and Canada have implemented personalized music programs. “Alive Inside,” the film by director Michael Rossato-Bennett, won the audience award for top U.S. documentary at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014.

Rossato-Bennett is making a new film, tentatively called “Alive Inside 2,” that takes a deeper look at human connections and personalized music by focusing on the relationship between elders and children. Snippets from the new film will be shown on April 20 as part of the “The Age of Disruption” afternoon workshop at Booth Playhouse in Charlotte.

Music therapy isn’t new

Southminster, like other long-term care centers, has long been using music in group therapy before beginning to distribute iPods to individuals.

On a recent morning, a group of about a dozen residents – some wheelchair-bound and not very responsive – listened to music and singing led by Madeline Chandler, Life Enrichment Program coordinator.

“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do,” she sang. “I’m half crazy, over my love for you.”

Chandler moved around the room, sharing the microphone.

“It won’t be a stylish marriage,” sang one man in a wheelchair. “I can’t afford a carriage.”

The woman next to him finished the verse: “But you’ll look sweet, upon the seat, of a bicycle built for two.”

Reactions varied, but one woman in the room who rarely talks opened her eyes and began dancing with her feet.

As the music continued, more people gathered at the door, drawn by the tunes from an earlier generation – “In the Good Old Summertime,” “Ain’t She Sweet,” “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.”

Chandler said: “Music is something they will come out for.”

‘Still something there’

Elizabeth Frye, Southminster’s life enrichment and volunteer coordinator, is particularly excited about the new Music & Memory program because it’s so personalized.

Compiling a play list of meaningful music for an individual is like writing a biography, she said. It takes time to interview the family and find the right songs.

“You have to become a detective,” Frye said. “You need to make sure it’s a song that has meaning.”

The first Southminster resident to get an iPod was a 67-year-old man who had suffered a massive stroke that left him bedridden. Frye said he was chosen because he was refusing to eat, was having a lot of pain and beginning to withdraw from others.

When a staffer asked the man to choose songs for his iPod, he wrote out a long list, including an emphasis on songs he didn’t want such as “Who Let the Dogs Out?”

“He stayed up late adding to it every night,” Frye said. “He would call his wife, excited that he thought of a new one to add. It gave him something else to focus on beside his pain.”

Just creating the list improved his outlook. He started eating more and being more social. He died unexpectedly only four weeks after getting the iPod. But during the time he participated, Frye said, “His quality of life drastically changed.”

Music gets foot tapping

John Robison, a banker who ran his own executive search firm in Charlotte, was the second Southminster resident to receive an iPod through the program.

The center’s staff chose him because they knew he’d had a deep connection with music throughout his life. Rooney Robison told them he used to sing in his Presbyterian church choir and also played the clarinet.

When Frye sat down with the Robisons to download music, she made choices based partly on John Robison’s body language. If the song “got his foot tapping,” it was a keeper.

He seemed to enjoy a wide array of music, from the Mills Brothers to Mozart, Luciano Pavarotti to Andrea Bocelli, “Onward Christian Soldiers” to the UNC Chapel Hill fight song.

Only 29, Frye didn’t know some of the songs Robison liked. But she’s enjoyed learning about new music and watching his response. She said he’s coming out of his room more often and enjoying other music programs at the center.

Rooney Robison is also pleased: “I’m just so glad he’s getting a chance to have something in his life that is like in the old days.”

Upcoming events

▪ Age of Disruption Tour. April 20. Evening performance “Aging: Life’s Most Dangerous Game,” 7 to 8:30 p.m., Dr. Bill Thomas with musician Nate Silas Richardson. Afternoon workshop Disrupt Dementia, 2:30 to 4:30 p.m., including clips from a new documentary by the director of “Alive Inside.” Both events at Blumenthal Performing Arts Booth Playhouse, 130 N. Tryon St. Tickets: $15 per person for each event. https://drbillthomas.org/local/charlotte-nc/ or https://vimeo.com/120834005

▪ N.C. Creative Aging Symposium, 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. May 6, Southminster, 8919 Park Road. See: http://www.can-nc.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/2016-Symposium-Brochure.pdf