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By GARY ROTSTEIN
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Sitting in her wheelchair in the library of the Vincentian Home in McCandless, 87-year-old Lois Wolff listened intently to music through the headphones placed over her ears for the first time.
The nursing home resident’s palm contained an iPod Shuffle, a device she couldn’t fathom, barely the size of a postage stamp. As music began, her head began swaying gently to brass beats she hadn’t heard in years. It was a melody she remembered dancing to in West View and Castle Shannon in her youth — and she was loving it. “It’s ‘In the Mood’! Oh, that’s so nice,” she told Vincentian Home activities aide Hannah Gudbaur. “Hey, this would be a nice thing to have, huh?”
“It’s yours, Lois!” responded Gudbaur, a 24-year-old trained in music therapy who had programmed the iPod with an array of hits from Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and others who Wolff had indicated weeks earlier were longtime favorites of hers.
Connecting the former Bloomfield secretary and others to music that would perk them up on days when they might be bored, anxious or depressed is the purpose of Vincentian Home’s participation in the national Music & Memory program.
Music & Memory is a New York City-based nonprofit group that since 2010 has been training and certifying hundreds of longterm care settings across the U.S. to make use of personalized music in improving residents’ quality of life.
Vincentian Home is presently one of 96 settings certified by Music & Memory in Pennsylvania. Nine residents at a time there can have their own iPods with playlists downloaded by Gudbaur that are tailored to their tastes — mostly old crooners, big band sounds, patriotic and religious music.
“Frank Sinatra is pretty much on everyone’s iPod right now,” said Gudbaur, whose own tastes veer toward more modern singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, but she has learned a lot about Tommy Dorsey, Perry Como and others who made hits decades before she was born.
While Vincentian Home uses the music for residents with a variety of conditions, Music & Memory was designed by its founder, Dan Cohen, primarily to benefit Alzheimer’s patients.
Various observations and research had already demonstrated the extent to which people troubled by dementia-related symptoms could regain a sense of joy or calm through music.
Cohen had the idea to put that into practice in a novel, modern way, using Apple’s small, portable music devices that can be loaded with hundreds of songs from the iTunes store. By transmitting the music through headphones, it becomes the focus for an Alzheimer’s patient, with all other distractions drowned out.
If someone is agitated and then hears her favorite music through headphones, Cohen said in an interview, “there’s often a 180-degree turnaround. ... It just makes people more cooperative, reduces their resistance to care. If someone doesn’t like bathing, but if they have the music beforehand, it’s like, ‘OK, I’m ready.”’
Facilities like Vincentian Home generally use donations to purchase equipment, pay for song downloads and receive training from Music & Memory staff.
It has proved sufficiently popular and effective so that the Pennsylvania Department of Aging is planning in 2019 to begin expanding Music & Memory into the homes of Alzheimer’s patients, as a means of new assistance to those individuals and their caregivers.
Part of a $650,000 Alzheimer’s-related grant from the U.S. Administration for Community Living will be used to test a home-based program through three county Area Agencies on Aging that are still to be selected, with the state intending to broaden it eventually to at least 10 times that many.
Terry Barley, the state deputy secretary for aging, said the idea will be to have AAA case managers understand both Alzheimer’s disease and Music & Memory and identify clients already receiving AAA services for whom it’s a good fit. Whether that person is assisted by a home caregiver or visits an adult day care center, contact would be made to teach those helping them about Music & Memory and share equipment with them.
He and Cohen said it is rare now for the program to be used in homes instead of institutional settings, but it would be only more valuable to expand it into the community, considering most of Pennsylvania’s estimated Alzheimer’s patients reside at home.
“Our goal is to really make it usable and friendly” for caregivers, Cohen said, helping them realize that frequent use of the music can ease their stress.
For Wolff at Vincentian, who has no Alzheimer’s diagnosis but does exhibit some short-term memory problems, she figures the music will only now brighten her day. Aides may have to help her initially in navigating the iPod’s use, as the contraption and how it works still mystified her after a half-hour with it. “Look at the size of it!” she cried out when looking in her hand. “It’s better than carrying a radio around. ... This is like — what did my mother used to call it? — she would say, ‘This is like Flash Gordon!”’