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.