- Associated Press - Monday, April 20, 2015

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (AP) - They sit in a circle in the sunny Amber Way dining room, singing “Here comes the sun, here comes the sun and I say ‘It’s all right.’”

For residents of Amber Way, the lyrics penned by the Beatles’ George Harrison nearly 50 years ago are more than an uplifting melody. They are a connection to days gone by.

“I know for Mom it makes her smile, you see her staying in tune with the music and she’s just happy,” said Shelly Wisdom-Long, whose mother takes part in a music therapy program at Amber Way Apartments, a Heritage Community of Kalamazoo facility for people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

“Songs are associated with different memories, so different songs can evoke different moods,” Paige Culross, a certified recreational therapist at the Kalamazoo senior community, told the Kalamazoo Gazette (https://bit.ly/1FCVPvA ).

“One of our residents, any time she hears a love song she starts to tear up, not because she’s sad necessarily but because it makes her think of her husband. She may not even be having specific memories of specific moments, but she remembers the feelings the song brought on in the past.”

Twice a week, Amber Way provides residents suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia with music therapy, a growing form of treatment for memory loss. Residents gather in the dining room, sing songs, play instruments and get to know each other better.

The goal is to work on memory recall through hearing familiar music, peer-to-peer interaction by trading instruments, and fine and gross motor skills by playing percussion instruments and doing stretches.

“Emotional memories are very different from other memories, and very often we associate music with emotions. They are linked in our minds. That’s why these residents who don’t usually have specific long-term memories can remember what they felt when they listened to certain types of music,” Culross said.

“We want to make each moment better for our residents,” she said. “Listening to music may not spark an actual specific memory for each person, but if it can bring up happy emotions and make them feel better than when they came into the session we have succeeded.”

“The memories in our brains are stored in many different places,” said Edward Roth, professor of music therapy and director of the Brain Research and Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Lab at Western Michigan University. “There are sensory memories, emotional memories, physical memories and that sort of thing, and then there are the memories of events and things that happen to us. So music therapy is trying to tap into different types of memory.

“Typically, when we remember things we remember the event and then we feel the emotions brought on by that event, but with music therapy what happens is the music brings up memories of emotions brought on by the events that happened while they were listening to that music, then through the emotional memory, often the memory of the event surfaces as well,” he said.

Ann Richards, director of memory care at Amber Way, says it is clear to see the music connecting with residents.

“The best part of music therapy is when you see someone who has advanced dementia who doesn’t always respond to other activities or engagements have their face light up when they hear a song they recognize,” Richards said. “You can see the difference in their expression. Even if they may be not able to voice their well-being, you can see it in their face.”

“Music is such a connector,” said Richards, who has been with Heritage Community of Kalamazoo for over 25 years. “It brings back so many emotions for the residents. We know that when people with dementia and Alzheimer’s are meaningfully engaged they will make those connections.”

For Karen Hill, music therapy sparked a connection in her mother that her family didn’t even know existed.

“We had no idea that my mom even liked music or liked to dance,” Hill said of Amber Way resident Joan Henderson. “She was a stay-at-home mom and did not work all while we were growing up and then she gets to Amber Way and they have music playing and mom would be singing or she would be dancing or at least her feet would be tapping.

“Now my mother barely speaks, but still, when she hears music, her feet start tapping,” Hill said. “The whole high of being with the music lasts long through the afternoon and even after.”

Wisdom-Long, who has a degree in music therapy, said it has become an important form of expression for her mother.

“Marcia, my mom, just loved to entertain. She was really talented and just loved it. We started noticing things when my father passed. The first thing we noticed was her loss of language and as someone who loved to entertain the way she did it was really devastating,” Wisdom-Long said.

“With a loss of language, music really becomes a new language for her,” she said.

“I really believe in the power of music to communicate and enhance the lives of people who need different types of stimulation.”

Stephanie Walbridge credits the music therapy program at Amber Way with improving her mother’s overall well-being.

“She has improved her cognition. She’s not stressed so she’s sleeping better so she’s happier,” Walbridge said of her mother, Lou Lou. “I see that especially with music therapy it’s the hymns they sing and the groups that come in and play music. It’s just this unbelievable thing to watch.”

Walbridge continued, “I think she has actually gotten better, which almost never happens with dementia. This is a good new thing that’s happening.”

“It doesn’t matter if the resident has pretty good cognitive skills or if they are really low functioning, they can still come and still get something out of these sessions,” Culross said of the music therapy. “Just being around people and having people right there next to you is enough to make that moment a good one, and that’s really what we want from this program.”

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Information from: Kalamazoo Gazette, https://www.mlive.com/kalamazoo

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