Each afternoon at about 4 o'clock, Tom H., an 83-year-old retired optical engineer, spends an hour visiting with his wife Marcie in her room at the Atherton Baptist Homes assisted living facility in Alhambra.
Marcie, 84, suffers from Alzheimer’s disease but she can still recognize her husband of 55 years.
"She remembers my name. She remembers I’m her husband," says Tom. "She lights up every time she sees me, so all that’s good."
Still, Marcie’s dementia has stolen away much her ability to think clearly and to function as she did years ago. Communication has become challenging for the long-time Pasadena couple, who asked that their last name not be used in this story.
“The memory is so short,” says Tom as he sits in a chair next to Marcie, holding her hand. “If I tell her something, she won’t remember after several minutes.”
But not all is lost to the couple. An organization called Music & Memory has provided Tom with a new way to awaken Marcie to the present moment: It's an iPod that’s customized with some of her favorite music.
On a recent day, Tom searches the music on Marcie’s playlist and chooses "Mockin' Bird Hill" by 1950s pop sensation, Patti Page.
“You like this,” Tom says he places headphones over Marcie's ears.
“I like this,” she repeats back to him.
Then, as Page's voice fills her headsets, Marcie smiles at Tom and begins singing along to the music, chasing away the dementia-induced stupor that had gripped her just minutes earlier.
Reaching them through a back door
Somewhere in Marcie's brain, the songs from her past—and her long-lasting love of that music—are still intact. The iPod's personalized playlist helps her find that again.
“It’s not a cure for Alzheimer’s but you are tapping those parts of the brain that are still functional and you’re reaching them sort of by a back door,” says Dan Cohen, founder of the Long Island-based Music & Memory.
Cohen, who is trained as a social worker, says he came up with the idea of using personalized music to improve the lives of elderly dementia patients about six years ago. His non-profit group works by collecting donated iPods and then distributing them to nursing homes that undergo Music & Memory training that his organization provides.
So far, he says, more than 60 nursing home chains in the U.S. and in Canada are certified in the program. In California, there are six certified facilities, including Atherton Baptist Homes and Pacifica Senior Living in Northridge.
"It gave me chills"
Among those who support Cohen’s efforts locally is Josh Grill, an assistant professor of neurology at UCLA’s Mary S. Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research. The organization has set up a web page to collect donated iPods for local nursing homes certified in the Music & Memory program.
“In Alzheimer’s disease, music may calm the patient bring back memories that we thought were once lost and even increase their alertness and their ability to communicate with those around them,” Grill says.
Down the hall from Marcie’s room at Atherton Baptist Homes, Jessica Litchfield, director of residential activities, recounts the first time she put her Music & Memory training to work on a patient. She chose an elderly resident who was suffering from late-stage dementia.
“She had stopped rolling herself in her wheelchair. She was the very first person I had put the iPod on,” Litchfield says. “And her face lit up. I literally stayed there for 30 minutes watching her. And she started clapping again and she started rolling herself down the hallway. It gave me chills. It did. It was wonderful to see.”
"Blessing to us both"
Not all patients show such dramatic transformations. Most here in a room at Atherton sit in their wheelchairs with their eyes closed, seemingly asleep as they listen to their favorite tunes.
But even that, say those who are familiar with dementia, is an improvement over the agitation, delusions and aggression that often grips those with Alzheimer’s disease.
“There are reports of music decreasing agitation and increasing calming and even alleviating depression in some of these patients,” Grill says. “And overall we think that providing music therapy may improve the quality of life of these residents.”
So far, that seems to be the case for Tom's wife, Marcie. The hour she spends each afternoon listening to her iPod with Tom seems to calm her, he says. She's more aware of his presence.
“I just think it’s a blessing to both of us because I’m not a very strong conversationalist,” he says. “So when we get together it’s something we can share together and that brings us a lot of joy.”