NOSTALGIC MUSIC AND VIDEOS HELP TO STIMULATE MINDS
OF PEOPLE WITH ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE
(Note to Editors: November is Alzheimer's Awareness Month)
NEWARK – Nov. 6, 1997 -- The rhythms of big band music and the antics of '50s comedians can be useful tools for engaging elderly people with Alzheimer's disease, according to a researcher at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT).
As part of a three-year study funded by the Alzheimer's Association, environmental psychologist Richard Olsen, Ph.D., has been observing the responses of dementia clients to vintage music and videos as compared to the regular activities offered by their adult day care program. He said that the difference in reactions is often "dramatic."
"Even people who normally slept or withdrew from activities such as sewing, bingo and card games were engaged by musical selections from the '30s and '40s," said Olsen. "They would smile and keep time with the music, sing along with the lyrics, and some even got up and danced."
Olsen, who heads the Health and Aging Division of NJIT's Center for Architecture and Building Science Research, said that such positive responses are important because patients with dementia fare better when their minds are kept active. Patients who are engaged in positive occupations are less likely to wander, or to be become anxious or aggressive, and such activities help to maintain their remaining strengths and independence.
Alzheimer's disease is a progressive, degenerative disease of the brain that affects one in 10 people over 65 and nearly half of those over 85. Patients survive an average of eight years and deteriorate through several stages from near-normal forgetfulness, to confusion, to mild and then severe dementia and complete incapacity. Olsen said that the "Musical Memory Lane" appeals even to patients with more advanced disease because long-term memory seems to last well into the later stages, and music is often the last stimulus to which dementia patients respond.
A unique aspect of Olsen's study is the method of delivery, which allows patients who are able to select and play music themselves. Operating conventional audio equipment requires thought processes that an Alzheimer's patient may no longer have. Working with NJIT's Media Services and Turner Engineering, Inc., Olsen had a 1930s Philco radio gutted and an easy-to-operate system installed with pictures to identify musical selections. Patients press a picture of Glen Miller and hear "In the Mood" and "Chattanooga Choo-Choo," or select Kate Smith to hear "God Bless America." The system offers 12 selections in all, each with 12 to 15 minutes of music.
"Especially in the earlier stages of dementia, formerly active and productive people may find that they have nothing to do, or they may be frustrated because they can no longer do things for themselves," he said, noting that frustration leads to agitation. "It's important to offer them opportunities to function independently as long as possible, to preserve their remaining abilities as well as their self-esteem."
The study is being conducted at the Senior Care and Activities Center in Montclair, N.J., where Olsen records patient participation in various activities offered by the center, as well as during periods when the "Memory Lane" equipment is available. He recently completed evaluation of more than 15,000 one-minute observations collected during the "Musical Memory Lane" component of the study. He found that the music system engaged people to a higher level and longer than other activities offered, including live music. The "Musical Memory Lane" also stimulated interaction with other clients and staff as the other activities had not. When offered a choice between the music and three other activities, patients chose the "Musical Memory Lane" more than twice as often as all of the other activities combined.
For the second part of the study, now underway at the Senior Care and Activities Center, the research-engineering team developed a similar system for video clips from '50s television shows and from movies. A '50s-style TV cabinet offers picture-button access to "I Love Lucy," "The Honeymooners," Laurel and Hardy, Jack Benny, Sid Caesar, and musical numbers featuring Carmen Miranda, Ella Fitzgerald, the Dorsey Brothers, Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington, and even a Nestlé cocoa commercial. Olsen said that he selected comedy and musical clips to avoid some of the problems that sometimes crop up with television viewing by Alzheimer's patients.
"Television is a popular way to occupy dementia patients in the early stages," he said. "But as patients become more confused or lose their ability to concentrate, television can become frustrating or frightening. Patients become unable to deal with complicated stories and unfamiliar characters, and some even believe that the violence and disaster they see on the screen is happening nearby. For the 'Video Memory Lane,' we choose familiar, non-threatening clips."
Clients are now being observed using the "Video Memory Lane," and Olsen says that early observations are showing "I Love Lucy" and "The Honeymooners" as big favorites.
Olsen became interested in the care of dementia patients several years ago. He is senior author of "Homes that Help," a book co-authored by Ezra Ehrenkrantz and Linda Hutchings that offers suggestions for creating a safe, supportive home environment for family members with Alzheimer's disease. In the course of interviewing 90 people who were caring for dementia patients at home, he became aware of the need for ways to keep patients busy, particularly during the day.
"People who are bored tend to sleep a lot during the day," he said. "When the rest of the family is ready to sleep, the person with dementia may be up and active, and disrupting the household routine."
Although only the prototype systems currently exist, Olsen would like to see "Musical Memory Lane" and "Video Memory Lane" copied and manufactured at an affordable price for use in nursing homes and private homes.
NJIT is a public research university enrolling nearly 8,200 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students in 72 degree programs through its five colleges: Newark College of Engineering, School of Architecture, College of Science and Liberal Arts, the School of Management and the Albert Dorman Honors College. Research initiatives include manufacturing, microelectronics, transportation, computer science, solar astrophysics, environmental engineering and science, and architecture and building science. U.S. News and World Report's "1998 Annual Guide to America's Best Colleges" ranked NJIT among the top 175 national universities. Money Magazine's "Best College Buys 1998" rated NJIT as the sixth best value among U.S. science and technology colleges and universities.