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Sing, dance . . . remember

Larry White doesn't always remember his name, where he lives, the name of his hometown or his grandchildren's faces. He frequently stutters and stumbles in the middle of a sentence. His frustration is palpable and his tears real.

But one Monday morning, the 89-year-old sang, in perfect pitch, the opening lines to “Moon River” as he closely impersonated Andy Williams. Animated and happy, he sang out as though the family and visitors in his room were an audience at the Moon River Theatre in Branson, Missouri.

Larry had been listening to Williams, Nat King Cole, and Frank Sinatra on an iPod with headphones. He is one of many hospice patients participating in Music & Memory, a national program that brings personalized music into the lives of elderly dementia patients.

The Music & Memory program has spread like wildfire across the country since its birth in a New York nursing home in 2006. Now, more than a decade later, caregivers from coast to coast rave about the power of music to bring calm and a sense joy to people with advanced Alzheimer’s or dementia. It can also lower a patient’s reliance on anti-anxiety and anti-depression medication and establish long-lost communication with friends and relatives.

Yolo Hospice is one of just three Yolo County agencies, including St. John’s Retirement Village in Woodland and University Retirement Community in Davis, that is certified in the Music & Memory program. “Through Music & Memory a caregiver can once again experience joy with a loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s or Dementia,” according to community relations manager Louise Joyce. “It’s like the sun breaking through on a landscape where there was no hope or joy.”

In an effort to help Yolo County residents better understand how music, and even dance, can positively impact memory loss, Yolo Hospice recently launched an interactive educational series called Easing Memory Loss. “We are incorporating dance along with music because a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine points to evidence that dancing can help prevent Alzheimer’s,” according to Joyce.

The research, led by neurologist Dr. Joe Verghese at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, followed elderly subjects over an impressive 21-year period to determine which activities most improved their sharpness of mind, and thus staved off the debilitating effects of Alzheimer's disease. The scientists worked under the assumption that the old saying, "Use it or lose it" is extremely accurate when it comes to brain function.

Participants in the study engaged in a number of activities, including crossword puzzles and swimming, to help researchers identify which activities best improved their cognitive functions. Surprisingly, they found that regularly engaging in social dancing lowered the seniors’ risk of dementia by 76 percent. This is because dance helps build new neural pathways within the brain. That, in turn, increases resistance to dementia.

When used appropriately music, dance and other alternative approaches can help manage someone’s stress-induced agitation, stimulate positive interactions and feelings, and facilitate cognitive function. It also can help someone feel like themselves, and feel connected to life and to memories.

Every practitioner has stories about an exquisite moment when art and science come together to create an awareness, an accomplishment, a breakthrough. These stories – poignant, insightful, and sometimes humorous – show the power and effect of music and dance, and can help to build an understanding about the benefits and applications of alternative therapies.

According to Joyce, "It's not magic, and it's not a miracle. The marvel is in how the brain is made and how it works.”

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