Taming agitation in Alzheimer's patients

Prescription drugs are often used to treat anxiety and agitation in Alzheimer patients, but a new local study finds that the best medicine may be music. Jean Enersen reports.

What looks like a typical sing-a-long is music therapy for Alzheimer's patients at Lynnwood's Quail Park.

As part of a joint pilot study by the Snohomish County Music Project and Living Care Lifestyles, participants were chosen because they had agitation problems, exhibited aggressive behavior or just had difficulty communicating.

Music Therapist Karla Hawley compiled a customized playlist for each of the study participants as well as common songs they could sing together.

"I would basically draw from era of music when they were in their teens and early 20's. Those particular songs, I think for most of us, hold the biggest more powerful memories." she said.

In coming up with those selections, the featured artist was just as important as the song. Hawley said the group requested Good Bless America," but wanted the version sung by Kate Smith because that's who they remember.

They also remember record players so Hawley introduced them to I-Pods as the "world's smallest record player" so they relate to the unfamiliar technology. Because earbuds might prove to be an irritant, each of the I-Pods is outfitted with own mini speaker.

To start off the therapy sessions, Hawley brings out her guitar and begins strumming a few favorites as well as improvising some on-the-spot lyrics about what's going around her. Today's subject is about sunshine and fun activities associated with summer, whether it be a picnic, a walk in the park or gardening. That helps prompt memories and conversations that might not have been triggered otherwise.

"The nice thing about music is that it's processed in all parts of the brain—both sides-- so it provides an opportunity for their brains to function in a more normal healthy integrated way," she said.

The benefits go beyond these weekly sessions.

Quail Park's Memory Care Life Enhancement Director Christine Browne says music can be used instead of medicine when patients become agitated.

"When they're having experiencing distress, when they're having negative emotions, when they're having anxiety, other behaviors that are attributed to people who have dementia, we're able to use these I-Pods as a tool and a coping mechanism for them—and it works."

She says family members have been able to use the technique, as well, to help calm their loved ones. Effects can be seen almost immediately.

"I mean it's magic."


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