John Vaaler, a Golden Valley Eagle Scout, slowly slides a pair of headphones over the snowfall white hair of Kate, a memory care resident at English Rose Suites in Edina.
When the music on the iPod connected to the headphones begins to play, the alert and talkative woman in her 80s begins to sing, “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”
Vaaler advances the music to the next song, and Kate looks up smiling, her hands now tapping her knees to the beat.
“Clap with me,” she says to Irene, another memory care resident sitting next to Kate listening to her own music.
Irene watches Kate’s hands and mimics her rhythm. The two begin clumsily clapping hands with one another as they laugh.
Vaaler delivered iPods, with customized playlists, to five of the residents of English Rose on Feb. 27 as part of his Eagle Scout project. He also provided iPods for the residents at English Rose’s two other locations in Edina.
The teen explained that he wants to provide music to the residents to lift their spirits and potentially help with their memory loss. He tells Kate that the records she used to listen to as a young adult were now stored on a small digital device that she could keep, listen to and bring anywhere. Kate grins and lets out a small chuckle amazed at what she just learned.
Vaaler, 17 and a junior at Hopkins High School, witnessed the impact that music had on his grandmother.
“I remember she was always very, very kind and respectful to all people,” he said. “Unfortunately, when I moved here she had developed a bit of Alzheimer’s so I never got to know 100 percent of who she was. I heard she was very fun, sharp. But her kindness was always apparent and that is one thing she accentuated throughout her whole life.”
According to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, music selections from when the person was ages 18-25 are most likely to have the strongest responses and the most potential for engagement from seniors with memory loss.
Vaaler included songs from the 30s and 40s, artists such as Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Etta Jones and Nat King Cole, in the playlists for the seniors.
Betty was a resident of English Rose Suites on Blake Road South in Edina. She loved music, her grandson said.
“Her iPod really helped her especially in her final days,” Vaaler said. “Music would make her more happy, more cheery. I would also visit and talk with other residents in the home and music helped them too.”
Betty died January 2016 at age 87. She was Vaaler’s inspiration for his scouting project.
“A lot of people build a bicycle rack or do something of a more manual kind of thing, but I lack any skills in manual labor,” Vaaler said. “So I wanted to do something that could challenge me and also something that was close to my heart.”
Some of the iPods were donated by family and friends, but others were purchased using donations and Vaaler’s earnings from his job teaching skiing at Highland Hills in Bloomington.
Vaaler’s parents, Paul and Kathy, said they were delighted when they learned of their son’s project.
“He really saw in the later stages of Alzheimer’s in particular where his grandmother would use the iPod and listen to the music that had meant so much to her,” Kathy Vaaler said. “(Music helps Alzheimer’s patients) come out of their shells and thats so lovely and heartwarming. I was happy for him. This was a unique idea for a scout project. We were excited for him.”
Jayne Clairmont, owner of English Rose Suites, shared in their excitement, recalling that she responded with a resounding “yes” immediately after receiving Vaaler’s e-mail about his project.
“This is about education,” she said. “This is about their joy, but it’s about setting a benchmark in memory care about what can be done.”
English Rose Suites has been using music therapy via personalized iPods for a decade, Clairmont said.
Music therapy is slowly increasing in memory care facilities in the U.S. due to organizations like Music and Memory.
The nonprofit organization, founded in 2010 in New York by Dan Cohen, a former consultant and trainer for the U.S. Department of Education, seeks to provide personalized iPods to those struggling with Alzheimer’s, dementia and other cognitive and physical challenges in all 16,000 long-term care facilities in the country.
Film director Michael Rossato-Bennett took notice of Cohen’s nonprofit and filmed his efforts to expand the program for three years. The documentary “Alive Inside” debuted in 2014. The film won the Audience Award for a documentary at film festivals across the country, including the Sundance Film Festival, Sedona International Film Festival, Provincetown International Film Festival and Milwaukee Film Festival.
Both Cohen’s organization and Rossato-Bennett’s documentary inspired Vaaler’s project.
The documentary featured several medical specialists and showcased how powerful music can be for memory care patients.
“Music is inseparable from emotion,” said Dr. Oliver Sacks, a neurologist, in the film. “It’s not just physiological stimulus. If it works at all, it will call the whole person, the many different parts of their brain and the memories and emotions which go with it.”
Other doctors agree.
According to Dr. Travis Stork, an emergency physician, on an episode of “The Doctors,” the music activates several parts of the brain, including the areas that process lyrics, rhythm, pitch, beat and melody.
The visual cortex of the brain in the occipital lobe can be activated if the listener is trying to visualize the notes. The motor cortex is activated if a person hears a song and starts tapping his feet. Finally, the medial prefrontal cortex is stimulated when a particular memory is associated with a song or style of music.
All of this brain activity is possible because it happens in parts of the brain left undamaged by Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are growing challenges in the U.S. According to 2016 statistics from the Alzheimer’s Association, more than five million Americans are living with the disease.
Gregory Petsko, chair of the department of biochemistry at Brandeis University featured in “Alive Inside,” said that number will nearly double in the next 10 years. There are not enough facilities or resources necessary to accommodate those numbers and we will have to find a solution that allows elders to age in place in a healthy manner, he said.
According to the association, one in three seniors die with some form of dementia, more than the combined total of seniors who die of breast or prostate cancer. Currently, there is no cure for dementia, only medications that can help cognitive and behavioral symptoms.
Cohen has found that music provides a way to reach people who are otherwise unreachable because of their disease.
“I haven’t done anything for patients that’s as effective as the music therapy is,” said Dr. Peter Davies, director of Litwin-Zucker Center for Alzheimer’s Disease and Memory Disorders at The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in New York.
Dr. Bill Thomas, a film-featured gerontologist for Eden Alternative, a nonprofit dedicated to improving quality of life for seniors, said the money spent on medicating Alzheimer’s patients “dwarfs” the cost of delivering personal music devices.
“Our health care system imagines the human being to be a very complicated machine that we’ve figured out how to turn the dials,” he said in the film. “We have medicine that can just adjust the dials. We haven’t done anything, medically speaking, to touch the heart and soul of a patient.”
Through his music project, Vaaler wants to keep in touch with the seniors at English Rose. As he left the home, he promised the residents that he could add more songs to their iPods, fix or replace the devices, and would return to visit.
To learn more about Music and Memory, visit musicandmemory.org.
“Alive Inside” is available on Netflix or can be purchased at aliveinside.us.
Contact Gina Purcell at [email protected]