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Music Is Helping Change Lives of Those Living With Memory Loss, Dementia
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Music is changing the lives of some nursing home residents in Gulfport. As MPB's Evelina Burnett reports, the program was inspired by a recent documentary and research on the ways music can comfort and draw out memories in those living with dementia, memory loss and Alzheimer's.

“Hey Mr. Powell, it’s Brady."

Brady Leatherwood introduces herself to Jack Powell, a resident here at Driftwood Nursing Home. The social work student at the University of Southern Mississippi visits Powell and other residents here regularly to play music from their personalized playlists.

It’s part of a project she helped start last summer called Finding Harmony.

“How you feeling?" Leatherwood asks.

“Kind of blah," Powell responds.

Powell, who suffered a stroke that has left him almost immobile, is slumped in a wheelchair.  He is a musician – he played the saxophone for years. He can’t play it now, but the sax is always beside him. It rests at the end of his bed, or today on the floor near his wheelchair.

As Leatherwood starts to play the music, from an iPad mini to a Bluetooth speaker, it seems to spark something in Powell’s memory. He begins to nod his head and move his feet in time to the music. And then, with Leatherwood's prompting, to remember.

"I played this song," he says.

Several other USM social work students are also now volunteering with Finding Harmony. Karen Aderer, the USM instructor overseeing the project, says music is a way to help nursing home residents to stay connected with others and to the things they loved.

"And for lots of people, that's music," she says. "Music is a very important part of people's lives. It's connected to the memories of who they loved, and good times with family, and certain time periods of their life that were happy or sad. And very connected with memory."

Dr. Linda Gerdner, an ethno-geriatric specialist at Stanford University whose research helped inspire the Finding Harmony project, explains that music has this kind of effect because the part of the brain that processes music stimuli remains intact for far longer than verbal stimuli.

Gerdner says the music can also distract from the external stimuli that can be overwhelming or confusing to someone with dementia. She stresses that the personalization of the music is key. Gerdner, one of the first to research this idea, says she first tried playing just some soothing music, but it didn’t have the same effect.

“If you’re driving down the road and you hear a certain song, doesn’t that take you back in time to some happier times in your life, maybe make you feel young again?" she says. "Verry few songs can do that. That has happened to me, and I see that happening with these elder patients.”

While they listen to the music together, the volunteers often ask questions. They’re refining the personalized playlists, but also drawing out memories. It’s almost visible, the way this seems to work the brain, like a muscle. Or, as Powell puts it, when he’s asked if he likes listening to music: "Oh yeah, definitely. It massages your brain."

Sandra Fox, the licensed social worker at Driftwood, says she’s seen the music program help reduce isolation, encourage socializing, and, in Powell in particular, improve moods.

“Music was a big part of his background. He did play in a band, and I think it helps him with the reminiscing and memories and helps calm him, so I’ve seen a big change in him since I first started working here,” she says.

Leatherwood, the USM social work student, has found something special for Powell: a CD of his own recordings. She’s played it for him several times, and she says it’s brought out new memories, ones she hasn’t heard before.

During another recent visit, Powell, Leatherwood and Aderer listen together as the notes of Powell on the sax soar.

"Who's that hot young fella on the horn?" Aderer asks.

"Jacques Puell," Powell jokes.

"I thought it was you," Aderer banters back.

"It is," Powell says, smiling. "It's Jack Powell."

And it brings back even more memories – where he played it, with whom, and even how it felt.

"That was a long-winded note," Powell says. "I held my air for a long time during that squeal."

Leatherwood and Aderer say they hope to expand the Finding Harmony project at Driftwood and at other facilities, including an area hospice program.