DEDHAM — Carla shook a tambourine, while Dorothy played the xylophone and Leni tapped her palms gently on an African drum. Vivian declined an instrument, but shimmied her shoulders when the music moved her.
Their walkers stood ready and their voices were wispy with age, but the eight group members sang with purpose, remembering every word of the Doris Day classic without prompting.
“We were sailing along, on Moonlight Bay. We could hear the voices ringing . . .,” they sang.
When they had finished “love’s old sweet song” and given themselves a round of applause, Clara proclaimed the group “ready for Symphony Hall.”
This music class at Hebrew Senior Life’s NewBridge on the Charles campus is what today’s cutting-edge Alzheimer’s treatment looks like.
Medications can’t stop the disease’s inexorable damage to the mind, and stress and agitation often remain challenging despite drug treatment. But a growing number of Alzheimer’s institutions and caregivers are realizing that a musical walk down memory lane — a dance class, storytelling session, art project, or museum tour — can do more than offer pleasant diversions. They can improve a number of disease symptoms as well as quality of life.
At a recent conference titled Artz and Dementia, some 150 Boston-area health professionals gathered at NewBridge on the Charles to learn how to provide the most benefit for people who are losing mental abilities.
The basic idea is to use art to engage and connect with people with dementia, said John Zeisel , president and cofounder of Hearthstone Alzheimer Care. No matter how many memories they’ve lost, an essential piece of who they always were still remains, said Zeisel, author of “I’m Still Here,” a 2009 book that focuses on this approach.
“It’s a human rights issue that everybody needs to be able to have a life,” Zeisel told conference attendees. “What is a life without creativity and art and discovery and learning?”
Even people who were not artistic or music lovers in their youth can be inspired by the sound of a song they heard on their first date, or by a painting that evokes an emotion, the speakers said.
For one woman, listening to Frank Sinatra brought her back to the happy summers of her teens when she would fall asleep by the radio, Marian Brown, associate director of Artz: Artists for Alzheimer’s, told the crowd.
“For her, it was very clearly something that triggered a deep-rooted memory,” Brown said. Recent memories and thinking ability may decline with Alzheimer’s, but long-term memories are still there, as are emotions.
“We don’t lose the ability to express joy,” added her colleague, Dee Brenner, Artz program coordinator.
The two help organize weekly local museum tours for people with Alzheimer’s, and walked conference audience members through some basic strategies for making such visits successful: Greet people when they arrive, remind them where they are, and make sure the artwork is big enough to be visible to a group.
“How does this make you feel? What do you see?” Brenner asks when leading a tour. She’ll avoid violent or disturbing images — but not sexual ones, which spur conversation, she said.
One of the key benefits of doing or appreciating art, Zeisel said, is that it challenges people who are usually doted on.
“When you are cared for, you lose your sense of who you are,” he said. “Everybody with dementia has a lot going for them. They can experience, they can be present, and they can develop.”
In the six facilities Zeisel’s organization runs in Massachusetts and New York, residents are encouraged to participate in regular artistic activities. They can usually choose between two activities at a time, and can also opt out.
At Hearthstone’s Marlborough residence, some 35 of the home’s 45 residents used to get agitated in the evenings, a common problem in Alzheimer’s known as sundowning. But when music therapist Joshua J. Freitas started playing soothing instrumental music at dinner time — he’s partial to recordings by cellist Yo-Yo Ma — most of the residents relaxed. Now, on a typical day, only eight or 10 need extra help from the staff.
Robert Stern, a professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Boston University, said a growing body of research is confirming the anecdotal evidence that the arts can improve quality of life, reduce stress, and allow the person to better connect to the world. Recent research suggests music can boost recall of personal memories.
“Whether it be fine arts, music, listening to music, going to museums. All those things do not have an impact on the disease per se. What they do most likely is they get through to the person with Alzheimer’s by exploiting the areas of the brain which are least impaired,” said Stern, also the director of BU’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center’s Clinical Core. “Anything that can touch the patient through that network of brain [areas] can have a profound impact.”Continued...