Music may help stimulate Alzheimer’s patients

Joseph Castillo listens to his favorite Celia Cruz songs on his iPod shuffle. The 93-year-old, who has dementia, is part of Music&Memory, a program for patients with Alzheimer’s and related conditions at South Pointe Plaza in Miami Beach.

Joseph Castillo, who used to sit quietly by himself, now listens to his favorite Celia Cruz songs on his iPod shuffle.

The 93-year-old is part of Music&Memory, a program for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients at South Pointe Plaza, a rehabilitation and skilled nursing facility in Miami Beach, to help trigger memories through music.

“I get to see Joseph every day, and guarded and withdrawn was his norm, but now he’s more social and more engaged and happier all around,” said Rachel Schuster, South Pointe’s administrator. “A lot of our residents, especially the ones with severe Alzheimer’s, tend to be isolated and have behavioral issues … but we’re seeing a much calmer population of residents. The music has made a great impact.”

Dr. Ranjan Duara, medical director at Mount Sinai Wien Center for Alzheimer’s Disease and Memory Disorders, says music can stimulate different parts of the brain. Studies have shown that music therapy can reduce agitation, stimulate more facial movements and improve motor and verbal skills in Alzheimer’s patients.

By 2050, the number of people age 65 and older with Alzheimer’s disease may nearly triple, from 5.2 million to a projected 13.8 million, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Duara said music therapy varies from case to case and consistency works best with a new patient.

“For some people, it may not work, but for others, it may have some effect. It’s more about getting an individual out of a state of complete apathy. It’s about getting these people to respond to stimulation. Anything that can engage the person is helpful,” Duara said. “Initially, there is often a lot of resistance when you take them to a new setting, but once patients get into a routine, they are more willing to engage in a new therapy.’’

Dan Cohen, founder of Music&Memory, came up with the idea after he realized how much he would miss music if he had to live in an assisted care facility. His background in technology and vocational rehabilitation led him to wonder why nursing homes didn’t have curated playlists on iPods for residents.

Now Music&Memory has stretched throughout the United States, Canada and Europe, with nearly 1,000 people participating in the hour-long music sessions.

Castillo’s son, Dr. Elquis Castillo, says he’s been measuring his father’s behavior every six to eight weeks and has noticed a change.

“He’s able to connect at a relational level more,’’ his son said. “He’s into Latin music and spiritual music. He wasn’t the guy who was buying records or CDs back in the day, but he’s now more open to the music. I can see his soul light up when he listens to a tune he likes. He used to be more guarded, but now there’s an openness that I’ve never seen before.”

The Plaza Health Network Foundation funded the music library and donated new iPod shuffles and headsets for the initiative. A Music&Memory coordinator curated playlists with about 15 to 20 songs relating to the patient’s background, including Creole and Spanish music for patients of Haitian and Hispanic cultures. The playlists are personalized to each patient and change every three months.

The playlists were put together through a series of questionnaires with the patient and the family members to get a feel for the patient’s musical taste. Because Alzheimer’s impairs the ability to recall facts and details but usually does not destroy the lasting memories stored deep in the brain, music of the person’s life can help them reconnect.

Cristina Rodriguez knows how important it is to establish emotional connections with patients of dementia.

She and Lauren Koff are founders of Mind&Melody. The nonprofit organization implements music programs in geriatric care facilities. The entrepreneurs have developed a color-coded system for the keyboard allowing participants to play within days of exposure.

Participants with dementia in the Mind&Melody enrichment program learn to play pianos and learn basic music theory. The program is offered through Plaza Health Network’s South Pointe Plaza center in Miami Beach Plaza Health Network .

They service facilities in Miami, Jupiter, Boca Raton, Gainesville and Tallahassee with about 150 volunteers leading the classes.

“It’s really good to see how excited the volunteers get when the participants respond because they can see how they make an impact in their lives,” Rodriguez said. “Even within the first class you can see the participants respond, but we see the most improvements when they are participating weekly. The frequency does matter. It helps create intergenerational relationships between them. There have been participants who ask for volunteers and notice when they are not there.”

Rodriguez said the hardest part of keeping a business model like theirs running is finding the funds to put back into the program. In Miami, they offer classes at My New Oasis, Miami Jewish Health Systems, and Easter Seals Disability Services but need more volunteers and about $200,000 to purchase more instruments and expand the program to other states.

“Being a startup is definitely a challenge, and sometimes it’s really rough, but seeing the participants happy and just going there is therapeutic for me,’’ Rodriguez said. “Seeing them happy makes me happy.”

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