Music shared by Healdsburg teens triggers memories for dementia patients

A partnership with The Healdsburg School has students generating playlists for residents at Healdsburg Senior Living, where familiar tunes can enliven fading memories.|

When Healdsburg seventh-graders on Monday sat down with residents suffering from dementia in the community room of a senior living community to ask them about their favorite music, answers didn’t come easily.

The 22 students, from The Healdsburg School, came to build personalized music playlists for residents of Healdsburg Senior Living.

Those playlists, scientists believe, can help trigger memories in even advanced dementia and Alzheimer’s patients.

“What kind of music did you dance to at your wedding?” student Travis Vos asked resident Agnes Bushnell, who was seated beside him in a wheelchair.

“I don’t even remember my wedding,” Bushnell replied frankly.

Undeterred, Vos and his partner, Lily Neal, kept asking Bushnell questions about her past until they learned her favorite performer was Gene Autry and that her favorite classical composer was Beethoven.

Then they introduced her to a little, lime-green square, an iPod Shuffle. It held a few sample songs, including some swing music and classics such as “Amazing Grace” and “America the Beautiful.”

Following Vos’ example, Bushnell slipped earphones over her head and began to listen.

And she smiled.

Nearby, a woman in a purple crocheted sweater and denim dress swung her foot and quietly sang along to several tunes as a student switched tracks for her. And resident Yolanda Gonzalez broke into heavy tears when she heard “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It reminded her of when she first got to vote, she told students Krista Stevenson and Paolo Ciolino in halting but animated English, gripping a tissue that someone handed her.

Stevenson and Ciolino leaned forward to hear her better, nodding intently.

They first got to know Gonzalez about a month ago during their first visit to Healdsburg Senior Living.

“Last time, she was still talkative, but today there was an immediate reaction with the song,” Stevenson said. “I never saw her so emotional.”

Hearing the music seemed to loosen a deluge of memories for Gonzalez, who related them to Stevenson and Ciolino, talking until after all the other residents had left. When it was time to go, she reached over and kissed both of the students on the forehead.

“I guess that’s just tradition,” Ciolino said with a grin.

The Healdsburg School science teacher Carrie Smith said the seeds of the project were planted this summer when a documentary about music and memory called “Alive Inside” screened at Healdsburg’s What’s Up Doc film series. The documentary shows how music can be used to elicit memories and often-emotional responses in otherwise unresponsive dementia patients. It features a program called Music and Memory that is trying to supply long-term care patients around the country with personalized iPods.

“A parent contacted me, said this film completely inspired her and changed her life, and that she would love to get the school involved,” Smith said.

Executive Director of Healdsburg Senior Living Robert Matthews and Marketing Director Tony Fisher saw the film, too, and were so moved they vowed to bring the effort to Sonoma County.

In September, they held a second screening for medical and senior care professionals at their facility. Smith was there. Seeing the film convinced her the project would be a good fit for her students.

“It fits well with our seventh-grade life science curriculum where we study the body and brain,” she said.

Smith, Matthews and Fisher worked out a plan to equip the roughly 60 memory care and skilled nursing residents at Healdsburg Senior Living with personalized iPod Shuffles.

To start, they paired 19 seventh-graders from The Healdsburg School, as well as three eighth-graders, with 10 residents suffering from moderate to acute dementia.

To prepare, students studied the anatomy of brain and its different functions. They learned that the area of the brain associated with musical memory is one of the last places affected by dementia.

“That’s why if we can get very specific music relevant to a person’s life, it will trigger memories in that part of the brain, then other memories start to resurface,” Smith said.

Staff from Healdsburg Senior Living also came to school to help students prepare for working with residents. They ran simulations to help students understand what is was like to have dementia, she said.

And Friday, students reached out to family members to learn more about the residents they’re teamed with.

Students will visit with their residents about once a month until they have been able to compile playlists of favorite tunes for them.

Then, they’ll start again with a new batch of residents and repeat until everyone is equipped with a personalized playlist, Smith said.

“This is definitely going to continue through the school year, then beyond,” she said.

Fisher said he’s envisioned such a partnership with a local school for several years.

“Skilled nursing and memory care are two of the least visible areas” of senior care, he said. “It’s not a real exciting place for people to visit. Friends start falling off or pass away, so we really rely on the community to provide socialization. The energy young people can bring is really important.”

Students said they found the visits fulfilling.

Stevenson said at first she was overwhelmed when the resident she was partnered with, Gonzalez, started to cry. “Then I was like, we’re actually making a difference in her life. I think she was really glad we came.”

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