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Mindful Music: For these Alzheimer patients, music begins where words leave off

Published on

Tara Jeffrey

Vanessa Barnes never imaged a college placement at the local Alzheimer’s Society office would become a labour of love, let alone the catalyst for a groundbreaking new program in Sarnia-Lambton.

“When I went back to school, I never thought I’d be doing this,” said the Corunna woman — a mother of three and second-year student in Lambton College’s social service worker program. “Now, it means a great deal to me.”

She’s referring to the Mindful Music program, the first of its kind for the Alzheimer’s Society of Sarnia-Lambton, where a student placement earlier this year has since turned into a full-time passion project for the 35-year-old.

“Judy Doan and Christine Wright had been talking about starting a music program using iPods with Alzheimer’s patients,” Barnes said of the office’s executive director and education coordinator, who urged her to watch the documentary “Alive Inside” which explores the extraordinary benefits of music therapy with dementia patients.

“After that, I was hooked,” said Barnes. “This was something I really wanted to do — and they pretty much let me run with it.”

Barnes and the Alzheimer’s Society partnered last spring with Vision Nursing Home, where she was matched with several residents — finding their music interests and creating individual iPod playlists, volunteering her time into the summer months.

The results, she noted, were astounding.

“You see a huge decrease in anxiety, depression, aggression and acting-out behaviours,” she said. “It helps them calm down.

“Just that short amount of time you spend with them can completely change their day.”

She has since been approached by several other nursing homes, with some 40 iPods currently in use and thousands of songs in her library.

Barnes uses a splitter so she can listen simultaneously with her patients, and record their reactions.

“It’s almost immediate. Sometimes it only takes a few seconds for them to hear a familiar song, and their eyes light up. Some start singing along, dancing in their wheelchairs, tapping their toes, or pretend they’re conducting an orchestra.

“People start to show more emotion; recalling memories,” she added. “Because music is attached to emotion, and emotion is one of the last things affected by dementia.”

Mindful Music is entirely donation-based, and Barnes is hoping to recruit enough volunteers to help keep the program spreading. She recently acquired a $1,000 micro-grant through Sarnia’s Awesome Foundation, and more money was raised at an official launch for the program last week.

“That’s my next step to keep it going — looking for donations and volunteers to help, so this program can continue on as long as possible,” she said. “It’s absolutely phenomenal to see the benefits — it’s life changing.”

For more information, contact [email protected]

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