Music for Your Years: Improving Quality of Life in Alzheimer's Disease

One of life's challenges is communicating with older adults in later stage Alzheimer's disease and finding ways to afford them some quality of life. In nursing homes they often are found slumped in wheelchairs, seemingly unresponsive or asleep. This situation is all too common and troubling for the staff who cares for them and families when they visit. Because Alzheimer's disease affects millions of Americans and will affect millions more as the Baby Boomers age, many families are touched by the tragedy of Alzheimer's or a related disorder. This is the reason why the movie, Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory , shown at the Cleveland International Film Festival in March captivated the audience of several hundred people.

The compelling film by director Michael Rossato-Bennett portrays the power of music to engage and enliven these nursing home residents to the amazement of staff and family members. The idea was Dan Cohen's, a social worker who found a way to bring residents to life using an iPod with a personally customized playlist. Once the headset is on and the residents are listening to their favorite songs from the 1940s or 50s, their eyes open wide, smiles appear, and some even clap their hands or tap their feet. The music triggered wonderful memories for one resident named Henry and he actually could carry on a conversation about them afterward.

It seems like such a simple and relatively low cost way to bring pleasure to nursing home residents with dementia. Medicaid pays for the care most nursing home residents receive and disallows reimbursement for iPods which retail for about $50. But, Medicaid will pay for much more costly prescription drugs used to quiet and control these residents. During a panel discussion after the film's screening, members of the audience were incensed that this situation exists. They questioned why private and public health insurance programs are not paying for and encouraging the use of non-pharmacological interventions, such as music and other arts activities, which research shows have significant health and well-being benefits for older adults. This is an excellent question deserving of an answer.

If you want to lend your support to giving older adults greater access to the arts, check with your local Area Agency on Aging or state unit on aging to find out what, if anything, is available in your geographical area. You also can go to Dan Cohen's website and volunteer to support personalized music for the elderly and learn how you can make it happen.