Music means a lot to Patricia R. When she sits in her chair and hears the music, she is reminded of her dad.
“See, my father had a bar when I was growing up. So when they had the country music band come, he'd say to me, ‘go out and dance Pat’. And I was like, eleven, twelve years old. I used to go out there and dance,” she said.
Patricia has dementia (we are not using her full name to protect her privacy).
Once a week, she and other residents at her assisted living facility, The Palace Gardens in Homestead, listen to live-music and play along.
“It’s fun. I’ve loved music ever since I was a little girl,” she said.
Along with Patricia, thousands of people with dementia and other neurological impairments have participated in “music enrichment” sessions from Homestead to Port St. Lucie since 2014.
The sessions are hosted by a local non-profit organization called Mind and Melody.
“Music enrichment sessions have three basic components: trained musicians, participants and instruments,” said Cristina Rodriguez, president and co-founder of Mind and Melody. “So, we believe we can use music to stimulate people socially, cognitively, creatively, while also improving their mood.”
How the “jam sessions” work
Mind and Melody offers individual or group sessions at healthcare centers, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and private residences.
The musicians stand in front of the participants, who are sitting in a semi-circle and holding small instruments like tambourines, maracas and hand drums.
“When we have good jam sessions, it's an energy that everybody feels. There's smiles everywhere. They say I love you, they say thank you, when are you coming back?” said Eric Guitian, the organization’s talent and community engagement representative. He is also one of their musicians.
Guitian said at the beginning of each session, the musicians play classic or upbeat songs that people with dementia might recognize from their youth.
“Everybody is different. Everybody has different connections to music. It’s just about finding what they want,” he said.
After a couple songs, the musicians teach a musical concept like melody, rhythm, tempo or dynamics. Then, the jam session begins again.
“We are trying to create a collaborative environment. We try to talk with each participant. Eventually, we find that we are not just performing but that we are making music together,” Guitian said.
The musicians perform in English, Italian, Portugese, Hebrew and Yiddish. The goal of the program, Rodriguez said, is to bring the transformative power of music to anyone in South Florida.
“Our participants can’t enjoy the music or the benefits if there is a language barrier,” she said. “It isn’t effective if the music itself can’t be understood.”
“We are trying to meet a need”
In 2018, around 540,000 people in Florida were diagnosed with alzheimer's disease and other neurological impairments, according to the Alzheimer's Association. That number is expected to grow to 580,000 by 2020.
“We are trying to meet a need. Treatments for dementia and other neurological impairments, especially non-drug approaches, are becoming increasingly popular,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said music enrichment can fulfill this need.
After each session, musicians complete a “behavior analysis” of each participant. They track each person’s eye contact, physical engagement with the music, and social interactions.
Then, Mind and Melody gives that data to Dr. James Galvin at Florida Atlantic University, whose research focuses on treatments for dementia and other memory disorders.
Galvin is leading an ongoing study that compares the effectiveness of two interventions that attempt to slow the progression of dementia: music enrichment and coloring.
“There's a great interest in music because there's the old expression ‘music calms the savage beast.’ And while I'm not calling anybody such a thing, the fact is that music can help modify, sometimes, behaviors that are not desirable,” Galvin said.
Participants in the study live in Palm Beach and Broward County and experience both interventions. After six months, Galvin said he expects the participants to enjoy more benefits from music intervention.
“There have been a lot of studies that show that music, an active intervention, has more benefits than a passive intervention like coloring,” Galvin said. “That can include better memory, improved social awareness and more overall engagement.”
Galvin says memory disorder researchers are interested in art-based interventions because they are not drug-based. The Alzheimer's Association says non-drug based approaches “should always be tried first” to improve the behavior of people with dementia.
“Music enrichment is a way to slow it’s progressive nature,” Galvin said.
Once all of the data is collected, Galvin says his team will evaluate the findings. They hope to produce a cost-benefit analysis that could save caregivers money.
“Because if their care of the patient changed because they participated in the program, that has not just local benefits, but that actually has economic benefits, because higher care needs really cost more money. And lower care needs cost less money,” Galvin said.
Rodriguez says music enrichment is not music therapy but hopes to achieve similar health benefits.
Music enrichment includes no clinical diagnosis or therapeutic objectives. And, the program can be adapted to each person or group because the musicians don’t have to be certified therapists; instead, they are trained to make observations.
“We created something that can be taken into any facility,” Rodriguez said. “While we can’t have a therapeutic relationship, we can still have that impact.”
Janet S. (we are not using her full name to protect her privacy), also has dementia and attends the same music enrichment sessions as Patricia in Homestead.
She said she can be forgetful, but the sessions help her think about different times in her life.
“It comes really from deep inside because I'm no youngster and I like music. My whole life I've liked it,” Janet said.