Music, memory and Mercy

Song playlists used to help nursing home residents in Tupper

Joyce Rockefeller, a resident at the Mercy Living Center in Tupper Lake, listens to music from an mp3 player as she eats breakfast Monday. (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

TUPPER LAKE — Joyce Rockefeller likes to listen to “The Sound of Music” soundtrack. As she ate her breakfast Monday — Cheerios, a banana, a muffin and a glass of orange juice — she sat at the table with headphones on her ears and a SanDisk mp3 player clipped to her shirt. With a smile on her face and a happy tear in her eye, Rockefeller listened to and sang along with Charmian Carr and Daniel Truhitte’s rendition of “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” from the 1965 film.

“Didn’t you used to see a lot of musicals on Broadway, Joyce?” Kristina Clark asked.

“So many,” Rockefeller said. “I just can’t remember them.”

The Mercy Living Center, an Adirondack Health nursing home in Tupper Lake, has been working for the past few months with the national Music & Memory program. Clark, the director of rehab, said this kind of program is used in hospitals and living centers across the country and the U.K., and it was designed to help patients with dementia reconnect with themselves, others and day-to-day activities.

“The concept of Music & Memory is to create individualized playlists for each person and taking the time to investigate what everyone likes,” she said. “Having headphones connected and using that music throughout the day can help someone feel more engaged in life again and bring their quality of living back up. You can make playlists for helping someone be more engaged to eat their meals and be more interested in that, or you can also make playlists that are more soothing and settling to prepare someone for bed. It’s very patient-centered care.”

The lobby of the Mercy Living Center in Tupper Lake is seen Monday morning. It features a jukebox, a retro Pepsi-Cola clock and the Happy Days Bar, which offers coffee and ice cream. (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

Music isn’t a cure-all for age-related ailments, but studies have shown improvements in mood and behavior when personalized music is introduced in older patients.

“Playlists are decreasing anti-anxiety meds, antipsychotic medications, pain medications,” Clark said. “It’s this whole plethora of pieces that they get to decrease, which then ends up increasing their quality of living.”

Before the mp3 players, Clark said Rockefeller was a much quieter person and didn’t communicate often, but once she was able to listen to her favorite musicals every day, she has shown greater interest in life and the staff at Mercy.

Music sessions are prefaced and followed up with notes similar to the ones doctors use for tracking a patient’s progress with certain medication.

“Doctors are now able to use music sheets and adjust prescription dosage properly,” Clark said.

Bill O’Reilly was an administrator of both the Mercy Living Center and the Lake Placid nursing home now called Elderwood of Uihlein. He’s retired now but still volunteers at Mercy. Even before the Music & Memory program was introduced to Tupper Lake, O’Reilly was making his own playlist so his children can play him music if ever loses the ability to do it himself.

“One of the things that residents of nursing homes lose is choice, because of the restrictions of their health and cognitive and physical abilities,” he said. “Music has been proven to be something that residents don’t forget.”

O’Reilly said the fact that the playlists are tailored to each resident makes the program so unique. A person who likes country isn’t going to want to listen to opera all day, and vise versa.

“We we do an inventory of residents,” he said. “We ask them, ‘What music did you enjoy the most in your life? What did you listen to when you were married — when you were growing up?”

Music is seen differently from television. O’Reilly said television is often used as a distraction. Sometimes patients don’t enjoy what they’re watching — whereas the Music & Memory program gives people the choice to listen to the music they enjoy most.

Sometimes the patients can’t remember what they like or used to listen to. If that’s the case, O’Reilly said, the staff works backward. They take the person’s age and see who was popular when they were younger.

“Between the ages of 18 and 35 is when people tend to find the songs and artists that matter most to them,” he said.

The effects are not only seen in the residents but also the staff.

“Because the music will give residents more enjoyment,” O’Reilly said, “it makes it easier for the staff to work with them.”

“That’s true,” Clark added “Over the weekend when I was setting up “The Sound of Music” soundtrack for someone, one of the [certified nursing assistants] heard it playing and said, ‘That’s one of my favorite songs, too,’ and then the three of us started singing. There are more opportunities to bond and really create relationships.”

Making the playlists takes plenty of work. It’s like prescribing a medication or a diet to a patient. Hospital staff needs to make sure the music will work for each person. The end result is a playlist for every patient with about 150 songs each. One of the center’s laptops contained a diverse iTunes library. There was Peter, Paul and Mary, Johnny Cash, Bing Crosby, the Carpenters and an album of Gregorian chants from a group of Benedictine monks. There was also a whole list of Christmas songs.

“We’re only in October, and we already have people asking to play Christmas music,” Clark said.

Clark said sometimes a patient’s favorite songs are repeated multiple times throughout a playlist. Repetition helps with memory.

The same idea can be seen in the children’s show “Blue’s Clues” on Nickelodeon. Where a show like “Sesame Street” offers a different episode with unique characters and lessons every week, Nickelodeon would air the same episode of “Blue’s Clues” for a week straight, so kids build their memory and critical thinking skills. Many of the segments also had the host — Steve, or Joe, depending on what year you watched — asking the viewer questions multiples time and having the audience repeat the answer.

The residents are quickly able to access mp3 players. If they don’t want to listen with headphones, the residents can also enjoy music in the lobby, which has been renamed “Happy Days Cafe” and fitted with a 1950s-style soda shop aesthetic — a jukebox, a retro Pepsi-Cola clock on the wall and a bar where you can order coffee and ice cream.

Clark said the Mercy would also like to fit the showers with speakers so that bathing becomes a more relaxed activity.

“It also gives it more of a spa feel,” she said.

Clark said it’s been exciting taking part in Music & Memory.

“It’s incredibly rewarding,” she said. “I call this program a win-win for everyone involved. Over the weekend, I was setting up some more playlists and meeting individually with some of the residents. I had so much fun. It didn’t seem like work to me.

“People sing along, and that happiness is just contagious,” she continued. “When you see someone singing to their music and loving it, you can’t help but take some of that happiness, too.”