The restorative power of familiar music
November 25, 2014
"That’s the look," Paula Botkin whispers excitedly as a resident at Elk Meadows Senior Living Community in Oakley begins to listen to a favorite song from her youth and immediately brightens up.
Botkin is helping to implement a revolutionary music-based program for those suffering from Alzheimer’s.
One of every three American seniors is afflicted by Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia at the time of their death, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Music & Memory is a nonprofit program that promotes music therapy for those suffering from Alzheimer’s or similar forms of dementia. Many Parkites got an early introduction to the program because it was the subject of the 2014 Sundance Audience Award-winning film "Alive Inside."
Botkin and Sarah Klingenstein, now retired, are reading specialists with the Park City School District. "We had worked together and wanted to do an activity together," said Botkin.
Klingenstein saw "Alive Inside" at Sundance and raved to Botkin about it.
"I was so incredibly moved by what I saw and started thinking, how can I get involved? That would be something that I could do, that I could help with."
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The premise of the program is simple — load an iPod with the music that someone with Alzheimer’s grew up with, show him or her how to use it and sit back and watch. The response from the listener can be almost instant — they can be more upbeat, more attentive, more — at least temporarily — restored.
"Everyone who saw [the film] talks about how they started crying in the first five minutes and didn’t stop until they were done," said Klingenstein. "Because it’s such a positive story about such a difficult time of life. You just are drawn to that. Also because it seems so simple."
Klingenstein and Botkin are members of the a capella singing group the Park City Treble Makers, so music is second nature to them. When they learned about the Music & Memory program, they were singing regularly with residents at Elk Meadows. They spoke to Laurel Bartmess, activities director at Elk Meadows, about taking part in the Music & Memory program and Bartmess was immediately on board. She reached out to the nonprofit and the three women were soon completing the requisite training so Elk Meadows could be a certified Music & Memory outpost.
Some of the training is straightforward — how to use iPods and what music files are legal or illegal to share — but some of it gets into the thinking behind the program.
"Music is a really, really personal thing," Klingenstein explains. "Things like — you don’t just say, ‘Oh someone was probably in their 20s during the 1930s, this is the music they’ll like.’ And if you can’t find out from the [residents] themselves then you have surveys, you go to the family members and we’ve had some great conversations with some of the family members about the musicals they like, the singers they like, that they hate country music or love country music, or this country music but not that country music.
"In the film they had experts talking about how memory of music resides, I think it’s in the amygdala, which is the area of the brain that is among the last-affected in the process of dementia or Alzheimer’s, so these memories stay there long after other things are gone. Our connection with music is so deep."
Klingenstein continued, noting "The studies that they were talking about in the training talk about how the music that means the most to you in your life later on is the music that you listened to between the ages of 10 and 20, or even as young as 5-15 years old…. And then when you’re older, special songs — the music you danced to at your wedding and all that."
Getting the equipment
"They recommend that you have 15 iPods and headphones to get started," Bartmess said. So we were talking, ‘how are we going to find these?’
"I contacted Insa [Ripien] at the Recycling Center," Klingenstein said, "and asked if they ever got iPods donated and she said, ‘Well, just once in a while, but I’ll put a bin out.’ And she said, ‘I’m going on the radio on Saturday, why don’t you come on and talk about it.’"
Klingenstein did just that, letting people know about the need for equipment.
"So I get off the phone with the radio station and my phone rings and it’s a guy and he just gives his first name and he said ‘I really want to help, this sounds like a great program. I don’t know anybody with Alzheimer’s, I don’t have any family members with it, but really want to help. What do you need?’ I said we need iPods.
"Well how many do you need?"
"Um, they say that we should have 15 iPods and 15 sets of headphones before we start the program and we’re having the training next week so whatever you think –"
"OK great, send me an email with what size, what kind, and I’ll have them over to your house by this afternoon," the man said, delivering on his promise hours later.
"Hundreds of dollars’ worth of equipment, just like that," Klingenstein said.
"Park City," Botkin adds. "Yeah!" Klingenstein and Botkin agree.
For more information on Music & Memory, visit musicandmemory.org.
Want to help out the program at Elk Meadows in Oakley? There are donation bins at Hugo’s Coffee, 1794 Olympic Pkwy. at Kimball Junction, and at the Recycling Center, 1951 Woodbine Way. iPods (or similar digital music players), headphones and iTunes gift cards will all be graciously accepted, as well as CDs (musicals are especially popular). Want to help out? Contact Laurel Bartmess (firstname.lastname@example.org ), Paula Botkin (email@example.com ) or Sarah Klingenstein (firstname.lastname@example.org ).
The film "Alive Inside" will be screening at Park City Community Church, 4501 S.R. 224, on Sunday, Jan. 18, with donations to benefit the Music & Memory program at Elk Meadows.
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