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Seniors With Alzheimer's Benefit From iPod Therapy

Carla Eckels

One of the most heartbreaking things for families who have a loved one with Alzheimer’s is that there are very few ways for them to communicate. The Roth Project: Music Memories has partnered with the local Alzheimer's Association in an effort to help families connect with those living with the disease through a new iPod Therapy Program. A Wichita woman living with Alzheimer’s has experienced a bit of a breakthrough through therapy with music.

70-year-old Kristi Wilson lives in Founder’s Crest, tucked away in northeast Wichita. Her husband, Barrick Wilson, says even though the couple has been married for 50 years, his wife doesn’t seem to remember him.

"I have to figure out whether today I’m her husband, whether I'm a friend from her teenage years or whether I’m a stranger. I don’t know," Wilson says. "She would ask me questions about Barrick, talking about me in the third person."

Wilson says Kristi would ask if he owned any cows or rode horses.

"That's a little unnerving when your wife of 46 years starts asking you questions about yourself, but as you begin to understand the rules, if you will, on Planet Alzheimer's, you understand that you just go along with whatever they're saying," Wilson says. "It’s like living constantly in an improv theater. You never know what the person on stage is going to say, but there’s an audience out there and they’re expecting you to come up with something appropriate and go with it."

Lindsey Norton, Program Director for the Central and Western chapter of the Kansas Alzheimer’s Association,  works closely with the couple. She knows how difficult it can be for families to communicate with a loved one living with the disease.

"One of the things that families like Barrick really struggle with is, 'How do I connect to my loved one?', 'How do I get in touch with them when they can’t speak to me anymore...when they don’t show me recognition?' As a professional, I can look at Kristi when Barrick walks in the room and I see her light up," Norton says. "I see her recognize him. A lot of us who know Kristi and know Barrick, we can see that. But he doesn't see that, so my job is to help him understand and to help him connect with her. Music is a great way to do that."

Music, Norton says, has a remarkable way of interacting with the brain.

"It hits the emotional connection, which is what we really key in on in Alzheimer’s care, the holistic care model," Norton explains. "Treating the total person so we can use music to really connect with that person and their memories and calm them down, help them feel a little more at home without having to resort to drugs or other kinds of treatments."

According to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, when used appropriately, music can shift mood, manage stress-induced agitation, stimulate positive interactions, facilitate cognitive function and coordinate motor movements.

This happens because rhythmic and other well-rehearsed responses require little-to-no cognitive or mental processing. They are influenced by the motor center of the brain that responds directly to auditory rhythmic cues. A person’s ability to engage in music, particularly rhythm playing and singing, remains intact late into the disease.

The Roth Project: Music Memories helps to fund the new iPod Therapy Program that personalizes music on iPods programmed for people with Alzheimer’s.

Credit Carla Eckels
Founders Crest provides 24 hour-a-day care for advanced memory care patients.

ComfortCare Homes built and operates the new memory care home, Founder’s Crest. The company approached the Alzheimer’s Association to lead in offering the project not only to their own residents but also to families throughout the Wichita area.

Norton programmed an iPod for Kristi, and with Barrick’s support, officially began implementing the Roth Project.

"I could see her smile," Wilson says. "And I knew that, in her mind, she was picturing her parent’s living room with the big, long wooden stereo and she was at home and she was happy."

"We reached out and put the headphones on her and just kind of started dancing and singing and she was happy as can be," Norton says. "She leaned over the woman next to her and tapped her on the arm and said, 'I'm listening to this!' and she smiled, as Barrick said. That’s one of my favorite memories! It was one of those this is why I do what I do moments in social work."

"It was moving for me," Wilson says. "I mean, when I enter the home I see no reaction from my wife. I don’t know if it’s a lack of recognition. I don’t know if its anger and rejection aimed at me and I’m internalizing it. I just don’t know, but to see her smile was one the biggest things that had happened to me in three or four years. So it was emotionally moving for me to be able to see her smile and I knew right then a there she was going to be fine with the music.”

Robert Miller is Vice President of Company Development for ComfortCare Homes, which built Founder’s Crest. Miller works with Kristi and Barrick, and the other families in the therapy program.

"We've seen that Kristi is a success story," Miller says. "It’s not necessarily the case with every resident. We're not going to say that the iPod itself takes away all of the issues and that everyone responds the same way but to have Kristi be the first and have her respond so well has been a joy and it motivates our company to want to give back to this program in a way that other families even at home can benefit from the same thing."

Carla Eckels is Director of Organizational Culture at KMUW. She produces and hosts the R&B and gospel show Soulsations and brings stories of race and culture to The Range with the monthly segment In the Mix. Carla was inducted into The Kansas African American Museum's Trailblazers Hall of Fame in 2020 for her work in broadcast/journalism.