Sumner Place uses music as a way to help people with Alzheimer's

LINCOLN, Neb. - Edith Earnest gets emotional when she sees her husband, Bob, play the guitar. It's something he used to love, but now, Alzheimer's makes it difficult for him to play.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, nearly 6 million people have Alzheimer's or dementia, with more diagnosed every day.

"It's hard, knowing what they were like before and what it's like now," Earnest said. "Sometimes not even knowing you're there or who you are. It's very hard."

Now, thanks to a new program at Sumner Place, every once in a while, Edith sees a glimpse of the man she married 55 years ago. It's called the "Music and Memory" program.

Bob is one of 26 people at Sumner Place who are participating in the program. Sumner Place is one of only four facilities in the nation to be selected by Brown University for the pilot program. It started in January, and continued through June. Now, Sumner Place is continuing the program on its own.

Earnest said she sees a difference when her husband listens to music from Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard.

"I think he's a little happier when he listens to it," Earnest said. "He loves classic country so I brought in some CDs. Monika put them on the mini iPod and he listens to them about every day."

Megan Herter, public relations coordinator for Sumner Place, said the key is to go back to patients' youth.

"Alzheimer's affects your short term memory, but those long term memories are still there," Herter said. "What we do is we go back to their peak years, so 16 to 26, the years that had the most impact in their lives so weddings, babies, things like that."

Sumner Place puts that music on an iPod, and residents can listen to it whenever they need to.

Monika Gall, life enrichment coordinator for Sumner Place, said she sees a drastic difference in residents before and after listening to their own, personalized playlist.

"We use it especially when we notice someone hasn't been eating, so 30 minutes before a meal we let them listen to the music and they can usually actually feed themselves," Gall said. "It really helps with sun-downing, when they start to get antsy the later in the day it is."

Gall said the "Music and Memory" program has seen success unlike other programs.

"We have music events that are music for everybody, but when a resident has his own personalized music, that's music for his soul," Gall said.

While there is no cure for Alzheimer's or dementia, Sumner Place is hoping to reduce the effects one song at a time.

"We have families tell us all the time, 'Oh, my mom loved music when she was little. We would love to try this program,' so it's great to offer this to our residents," Gall said.

Sumner Place said it plans to continue to expand the program as necessary, as long as it has the funding and support to do so. If you want to donate, Sumner Place said it accepts monetary donations as well as used iPods and CDs.