Cori Colucci brings out the best in people.
When she enters a room, faces light up and the elderly seem to come alive with long-lost memories and stories of childhood and beyond. Cori is a therapy dog, tasked with soothing and lifting the spirits of individuals with dementia and other cognitive diseases.
“The idea of pet therapy is all about sharing your pet for emotional service opportunities,” says Cori’s owner and handler, Christine Colucci. “So for people with dementia, this means typically a little bit of comfort, love and companionship.”
Cori is a Portuguese Podengo Pequeno, a small hound bred primarily for hunting. Luck, fate, serendipity, or a combination of these things put Cori in the hands of her owner, who upon retirement eight years ago had decided she wanted both a dog and a volunteer opportunity.
“When I got the dog I found she is the most friendly and outgoing little dog when it came to people,” Colucci recalls.
She reached out to Therapy Dogs International, a volunteer organization dedicated to regulating, testing and registering therapy dogs and their volunteer handlers for the purpose of visiting nursing homes, hospitals and other institutions where therapy dogs are needed.
Colucci discovered that Cori was best suited for an environment with the elderly when her own mother’s health took a downturn.
“I found that my dog as a puppy was a wonderful age to her in the home. Mom loved the dog and my dog loved mom,” she says.
Cori and her owner visit the Friendly Home, where Colucci’s mother is a resident in the memory care unit, weekly.
“I’ve found that it really does help people to relax a little bit, particularly if they’re a little anxious or appear aggressive. They tend to calm down a little bit,” Colucci says. “Some of them are not that vocal and it’s a chance for them to find memories.”
She recalls one man in particular who told stories about his lap dog who used to jump off a dock into a lake where he had a home. Without Cori’s help, the man might not have been able to recall that time in his life.
“I think overall the biggest benefit we bring is a bit of diversion and distraction in an otherwise stressful day,” Colucci says. “It’s an opportunity for them to feel the warmth and the joy of the dog. And they’re given unconditional love from the dog and acceptance no matter what their illness might be.”
More and more, doctors, family members and staff at homes for the elderly are discovering benefits to non-traditional therapies for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias. In many cases alternative therapies can be used in conjunction with medicines designed to help slow the progression of the disease, some with dramatic effects.
Numerous studies have discovered that music can have a positive effect on individuals with cognitive disorders, bringing them out of their shells and eliciting both verbal and physical results that otherwise would not be seen.
Sponsored by the Konar Family Foundation, Nazareth College in 2011 conducted a pilot program to study the effects of music therapy on elderly dementia patients.
“My colleague, Lauri Keough, and I were frustrated with the kind of music therapy services available to seniors in this community,” says Betsey King, a board-certified music therapist and program director for the music therapy program at Nazareth. “There were two things going on in most long-term care: one was they didn’t have music therapists at all. And when music therapists were in facilities they were being given 20, 25 or 30 people to work with at a time.”
King and Keough’s program looked at small group music therapy in dementia patients over a period of a year, expecting their results to mirror those of larger studies nationwide that showed that individuals responded more favorably in smaller groups.
“As we had seen in the research results that we read, we saw not just maintenance of attention and decreased agitation and increased socialization, but we saw new learning occur,” King explains.
Dementia patients were taught new clapping and singing techniques while participating in the program, King says, and while the individuals were only in the group settings once a week, they were able to learn new skills and maintain those skills until the next session.
“It was an enormous success,” King says. “Our anecdotal data showed that between music therapy sessions family members told us that their family members were more active at home, more alert.”
The difference between music therapy and recreational music or music as entertainment, King says, is that music therapy is about finding and meeting individual goals and individual growth or maintenance. A music therapist develops a relationship with each client she sees, even when clients are seen in groups.
At Nazareth, music therapy students study psychology, anatomy and physiology, statistics and research, as well as music therapy, in both the undergraduate and graduate programs. Students also must complete 1,200 hours of clinical work.
The programs are highlighted by the college’s Wellness and Rehabilitation Institute, which provides hands-on training to students through clinics from all of the health profession disciplines at the school.
“The mission of WRI is to serve the underserved population,” King says, which includes individuals who do not have health insurance or those whose insurance does not cover things like music therapy.
The reason music therapy works so well with dementia patients is because therapists are able to change tempo and cater the music to each individual’s needs, King says.
Samuel Snyder says music therapy is the use of music as a therapeutic tool to obtain non-musical goals. As a music therapist for the Friendly Home, Snyder has seen firsthand the results the tool has on some individuals.
“We have members here who have aphasia, who can’t really speak, but they can sing,” Snyder explains. “It’s one of those wonders of the brain that when they’re presented with musical stimulus and a song that they’re familiar with they can sing every word, but they couldn’t speak a sentence if you asked them to.”
At the Friendly Home music is used for reminiscence, creating memories and recalling memories, Snyder says.
“There are people who can’t really remember what they ate for lunch, but they can tell you what their favorite song was when they were 18 and sing every word of it,” he says. “Not just, ‘I remember that song,’ but ‘I remember where I was, who I was with.’ It becomes like a storytelling session.”
In his work, Snyder plays guitar, ukulele and piano and sings for patients and their families.
“There’s a real benefit to using live music because you can change the way it sounds for the situation,” Snyder says, recalling an occasion where he was playing for someone who was dying and was asked to do something unique. “They wanted a full-out celebration in the room. They had always gotten around the tree at Christmastime and played carols on kazoos, so I brought up some kazoos and we all played on kazoos for a woman who was dying.”
It was a true music therapy moment, he says.
Some 380,000 individuals, or 13 percent of seniors, in New York State have Alzheimer’s and more than 2,500 individuals die from the disease each year statewide, data from the Alzheimer’s Association shows. Nationwide more than 5 million people are living with the disease and an estimated 16 million will have it by 2050.
“It’s an issue we face every day. Memory loss affects everybody across our continuum,” says Michael King, president and CEO of Jewish Senior Life. “Fifty to 70 percent of our elders have some form of memory loss. We’ve tried to attack this pretty aggressively, this debilitating disease.”
Jewish Senior Life also uses a variety of alternative therapies for its dementia patients, including pet therapy, creative arts therapy and music therapy. The organization has earned certification for its Music & Memory program.
Music & Memory is a national non-profit that brings personalized music into the lives of the elderly through digital music technology such as iPods. The organization trains nursing home staff on how to create and provide personalized playlists in order to reconnect with the world through music-triggered memories.
“We have about 60 iPods currently out and they are all made with a personalized playlist,” says Regina Dennis, a board-certified music therapist with Jewish Senior Life. “That’s what makes it so special, that it’s personalized and tailored to them.”
The program has been an overwhelming success, King and Dennis say.
“There have been some residents that have anxiety, and as soon as you put the music on immediately everything changes,” Dennis says. “They come alive.”
One patient in particular spent a lot of time anxious and crying, Dennis recalls, but when they gave her an iPod she began waving her hands and conducting the music.
“What’s really fascinating about music is that it reaches all areas of the brain, rather than one area or another. Studies show that music does stimulate the entire brain,” Dennis says. “Some of our residents may not be able to tell me their name if I ask them but they can sing all of the words to ‘You Are My Sunshine’ without any hesitation.”
In addition to its music and arts programs, Jewish Senior Life has built a culinary kitchen for its residents that stimulates memories and improves the social aspect of their lives.
“Our elders can come, sit in the kitchen and we bring in chefs—either our own chefs or chefs from the outside—and they all cook recipes together,” King says.
Non-traditional therapies to help elders with dementia are innovative, says Alzheimer’s Association president and CEO Teresa Galbier, and they are designed to provide an opportunity for people to have social interaction.
“Social isolation is a very big issue for people with dementia and their loved ones,” Galbier says. “It’s probably one of the first issues that they face and everything gets worse from there.”
Knowing this, the Alzheimer’s Association has put together a number of programs to reduce the isolation, depression and anxiety that come with the disease, Galbier notes.
“They provide an opportunity for a purposeful day, they provide meaning in their days and they bring back memories of things they used to participate in, like going to the orchestra and painting,” she says.
Following the example of a program available in New York City, the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association developed Meet Me at the Mag, a monthly program held at the Memorial Art Gallery in which individuals with dementia and their caregivers can tour the museum while it is closed to the public.
“The volunteer docents are all trained by us on how to best work with and communicate with people with dementia,” says Elizabeth Campbell, a care coordinator with the Alzheimer’s Association. “The security staff is also trained on what to do if someone does attempt to touch an object or is acting inappropriately for a museum setting.”
The program starts with a recital on the baroque organ and moves on to a tour of certain sections of the museum, sometimes incorporating tactile objects, with a goal of involving several senses, Campbell says.
The Alzheimer’s Association also offers Art with Heart, an art-making, therapeutic activity for dementia patients and their caregivers at the Pieters Family Life Center. Patients are given a safe space where they know that the people around them understand their needs while they engage in an activity they enjoy.
“Oftentimes it stimulates a time of reminiscing,” Campbell says. “If they’re looking at a Norman Rockwell painting of a soldier and his girlfriend on a bus ride home they might talk about their experiences in the service.”
Melodies and Memories promotes health and wellness through a variety of musical experiences. The monthly program allows individuals with dementia and their care partners to play instruments, sing and be involved in group discussion in a supportive environment, Campbell says.
Galbier cautions that while the use of iPods in music therapy can be helpful, personal music devices are not as social as some of the other therapies available to dementia patients.
“If the only option is an iPod, let them do it,” Galbier says. “But we don’t want to see that that becomes a primary intervention. It should be something that is supported by some social aspect.”
Because communication is a huge barrier for people with Alzheimer’s, … their ability to have cohesive thought and conversation is often diminished, Galbier says. One-on-one and group social therapies can alleviate some of that.
“When someone is diagnosed, oftentimes what happens is their friends and their circle of support they had is fearful of the disease or doesn’t understand what is causing the changes, so they stop inviting them to participate in things,” Galbier says. “And this gives them a place where they can go and be understood. What they’re doing is they’re developing new friendships, because everybody who is participating in these programs is facing the same issue.”
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