How a Little Music Can Ease the Suffering of Alzheimer's

A Wisconsin program that provides iPods and personalized music to nursing-home residents living with dementia is having some startling results.

A year ago, a colleague and I who work to improve the lives of Wisconsin nursing-home residents watched a video that opened our eyes. Henry Dryer was an elderly nursing-home resident with advanced dementia who was largely unresponsive to the outside world until one day he was reawakened when introduced to personalized music, including that of his favorite artist, Cab Callaway. The video had gone viral when it was posted online in 2012, with nearly 10 million views.

We then met Dan Cohen, founder of Music & Memory, whose dream is for every nursing-home resident to have an iPod with a personalized music library. Dan and Henry inspired us to try to make a difference for Wisconsin residents living with Alzheimer's disease or related dementia.

Our journey began by securing funding through the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), which provides money from civil penalties paid by nursing homes to improve quality of care and life for residents of these facilities. Wisconsin was the first state to use this creative funding source to provide personalized music for nursing-home residents. To kick the project off, we recruited 100 nursing homes to participate in the Wisconsin Music and Memory Initiative.

Each of the nursing homes received training and certification as a Music & Memory Facility, along with equipment for 15 residents including iPod Shuffles, headphones, an external speaker and $150 iTunes gift cards to use to create their own music libraries.

The goals of the program go beyond simply making daily life more pleasant for nursing-home residents. The CMS funding also supports a research evaluation conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to study whether the program might help with other objectives, such as reducing reliance on anti-psychotic and anti-anxiety medications; reducing agitation, "sundowning" (behavioral problems that begin to occur late in the day) and resistance to care; and enhancing engagement and socialization.

The Wisconsin Music & Memory Initiative is part of a Dementia Care Systems Redesign that the state is embarking upon, and the Department of Health Services hopes to expand the program to assisted-living communities and to families and caregivers. The program now encompasses 118 nursing homes, with another 150 to be added this summer.

Music & Memory already is beginning to expand beyond Wisconsin. Alabama, Connecticut, Louisiana, New Jersey, North Carolina and Utah are using or exploring the use of CMS civil-penalty funds to bring Music & Memory to their states. And the Alzheimer's Society of Toronto has also launched an aggressive Music & Memory project to bring personalized music to 10,000 residents of that city diagnosed with dementia.

The need for programs like this will only grow. Wisconsin has approximately 120,000 residents with Alzheimer's disease, including almost half of those living in nursing homes. Over the next 20 years, 10,000 Americans will be turning 65 every day, and it is estimated that one in seven of those age 65 or older will have a diagnosis of Alzheimer's; for those 85 and older, half will suffer from it. If a little music can do for them what it did for Henry Dryer, a lot of lives will be brighter for it.

VOICES is curated by the Governing Institute, which seeks out practitioners and observers whose perspective and insight add to the public conversation about state and local government. For more information or to submit an article to be considered for publication, please contact editor John Martin.

Kevin Coughlin, a 2007 Governing Public Official of the Year, is a policy initiatives adviser-executive with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
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