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Legacy in the News: Elderly patients recall memories from song - comfort in words

The Times

July 17, 2014

Legacy Meridian Park Hospital volunteers visit with elderly patients to ease their stress

From her hospital bed, Beatrice tapped her foot to the tune of a Patsy Klein song. She mouthed along with the words while her serenader, Bill James, strummed the nylon strings of his ukulele. When the abridged song ended, Beatrice mentioned how nice it was.

“Do you know about the bicycle built for two?” asked James.

“Well, yeah,” the 91-year-old replied. “But I never rode on one. My brother did, though...” she trailed off, saying something about a job he had before he moved. James tried to decipher the thought for a moment before jumping in with the song that prompted the memory in the first place. Beatrice sang along, her voice high-pitched and clear, never faltering on the lyrics.

“She hadn’t sang that song probably in years and years, because nobody plays those songs, but they’re still there,” said James. “Everything we’ve ever learned is still there — it’s having access to it. Dementia puts door, door, door in front of it, but it’s still there. Sometimes the music is a nice way to get at that, and it triggers some really nice memories for them, too.”

In February, Legacy Meridian Park Hospital in Tualatin started Acute Care for the Elderly Volunteer Program, which allows volunteers to interact with elderly patients. Typically, the patients are in the hospital for a short period of time, having been brought in for a fall or illness, and on top of that have some memory slippage. The goal is to help comfort and orient the patients through interaction with someone other than a doctor or a nurse.

Stemming from the Hospital Elder Life Program out of Yale University School of Medicine, ACE was brought to Legacy Meridian by Anna Takaku. A staff nurse who wanted to improve her own hospital’s elder care, Takaku is pleased with how the program is progressing in its early stages.

“It helps to kind of change the routine for their day and takes them away from their illness,” she said.

Right now, Takuku said four volunteers are helping with the program, but she hopes to raise this number to seven so they can have someone for every day of the week. She said social interaction can be crucial to a patient successfully assimilating into the hospital. Currently, James is the only volunteer who plays music, while the other volunteers sit and chat — whatever the situation calls for.

“Some of them may have family and that’s great, but sometimes it’s nice to have somebody other than family,” said Susan Bailey, a retired elementary school music teacher who volunteers through ACE. “I go wherever they go with their conversation. It could be anywhere, and anywhere is fine.

“I always shake their hand, hold their hand, touch their shoulder. If you can’t say anything, hold their hand.”

Whether it’s by talking to them about their childhood or playing a song they haven’t heard in 60 years, Bailey and James are both trying to take the patients to a place of familiarity and happiness. James, a retired psychologist and licensed music therapist, sees time and again how these interactions help the patients he visits.

“I think it’s because music is with us almost from the time we’re born. If you think about it, one of the strongest elements of music is the rhythm. I think we’re wired, when we hear the mother’s heartbeat, to hear rhythm,” he said, drumming out a heartbeat on the table. “That’s why it’s one of the last things to go, too. Even people who are in very serious Alzheimer’s and their brain’s not even telling them to breathe anymore, I still see that foot tapping when I play.”

After playing several peppy songs for Beatrice, James ended with a ballad, “Goodnight Irene.”

“Sing it pretty,” he told her.

Beatrice nodded and sang along, confident and smooth, as if not a day had passed since she last heard the melody. 

To read the original article, click here.

For questions, contact Ashley Stanford Cone.