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"Music & Memory" Helps Alzheimer's Patients In Orlando, Worldwide

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Bette Jumper, 81, is a Westminster Winter Park resident, "Music & Memory" participant, and Big Band music fan

Call it a “musical movement.” Music & Memory is a program that uses favorite tunes to help people with Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other cognitive challenges. More than 2,000 healthcare facilities nationwide and in eight countries are certified Music & Memory participants. Westminster Winter Park senior living community is one of them.

It’s lunchtime in the Magnolia Terrace section of Westminster, and the small cafeteria is busy. Some residents are chatting between bites, while a few others are wearing earbuds connected to iPods.

Add the pleasant art, cheerful flowers, and resident suites, and the setting in this dementia ward – locked to assure residents don’t go for a walk alone and become disoriented – looks more comfortable than clinical. The Music & Memory program provides patients with iPods full of songs they love, so it fits with Westminster’s emphasis on quality of life, too. But residential assisted living coordinator Kim Dike says it’s more than just listening to music.

“Without being able to get inside and see how it’s working in the brain, I can definitely tell you when I look at them, you can read it from their face,” says Dike. “Whether it’s just…a simple smile on their face, or it could be maybe them just swaying back and forth, just as we would if we had our own music. I might be dancing, I might be singing out loud. They do that, too.”

Dike says residents get to choose their own tunes because a personal connection to the music helps them remember the past and re-engage in the present.

She took a two-day class to get certified in the program. As part of her training, she learned to lead Alzheimer’s and dementia patients through telling her about their favorite songs…a task that can be difficult in a population with varying levels of cognitive challenges. Dike says the Music & Memory organization provided lists to work from and encouraged a kind of winnowing process, “starting out with, ‘Okay, what type of music do you like? Do you like jazz? Do you like opera? Do you like Broadway musicals?’”

And step-by-step, favorite musical genres, eras, bands, albums, and finally songs emerge.

“I like the Big Band era,” Magnolia Terrace resident Bette Jumper says. “That was my favorite time, because that was my generation’s type of music.”

Just talking about her favorite band leaders and musicians – Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey – she’s smiling and engaged. Dike says she often sees music lifting patients’ moods.

“I think it helps them feel better,” Dike says. “And I don’t know if this is the right word to say, but I think the music – it’s like a medicine. I don’t know if that’s corny, but I think that’s how I’m going to say it. It’s like a medicine for them.”

Turns out, it’s not corny. University of Central Florida biomedical science professor Kiminobu Sugaya researches music and the brain. He says when patients with cognitive issues choose their own music, it can change the way they interact with the world.

“They don’t show any happiness or emotion” at times, says Sugaya, “but if we give (them) music and they’re attached to it, immediately we can see their faces brighten and show their emotion, and then they start to respond to people.”

Sugaya has published research on music’s effect on the brain. In his study, he exposed people to Mozart’s music. “Sometimes we saw a 50 percent increase of the brain function,” he says.

Back at Magnolia Terrace, Bette Jumper says she loves her iPod, stocked with her favorite songs by Kim Dike as part of the Music & Memory program. And it does take her on what could be called a “Sentimental Journey.”

“It brings back old memories,” she says. “It brings good times back, things that I enjoyed. I loved to go to big band concerts and everything, when I went to college.”

Asked to share specific memories, she blushes like the college girl she once was.

“Well…of old boyfriends that I had,” she laughs. “True confessions.”

Nicole Creston is a reporter with WMFE in Orlando. WMFE  is a partner with Health News Florida, which receives support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.