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How Music and Film Can Teach People About Alzheimer’s Disease

A college course that taught music and film and brought students into dementia care facilities shows how the arts can transform perceptions of Alzheimer’s disease. The course may offer insights into how we can better motivate people to understand and care for those with Alzheimer’s disease.

The course, at the University of Arizona in Tucson, brought undergraduates to meet people with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia who were living in assisted-living homes or attending dementia day-care centers. The students were instructed in creating music playlists, producing short films and writing reflective essays about their experiences.

Three courses were taught over three semesters, with 16 to 18 students in each class. About half of the students were majoring in health sciences. Classes were led by a music professor and supplemented with guest professors trained in social work, communication and dementia care. The program was conducted in partnership with Music and Memory, an organization that creates music playlists for people with dementia.

Over five to eight weeks, the students worked in pairs and completed six half-day visits to dementia care facilities, interacting with people with dementia. (All of those with dementia, or their families, consented to participate in the course.) Students compiled playlists of favorite songs of people with dementia and filmed their interactions. At the end of the course, the students wrote an essay reflecting on their experiences.

Three main themes emerged from the class experiences. First, music helped students connect with people living with dementia in meaningful ways. Second, filmmaking offered students the opportunity to share unique, person‐centered stories about dementia and music that help empower the voices of people with dementia. Third, reflective writing enabled the students to process new experiences and lessons learned.

Among the experiences the students described about working with those with dementia were these:

“She was asking for Mary Poppins, so we decided to play ‘A Spoonful of Sugar.’ This is where we learned the most important thing about Judy. She was explosive. Though she didn’t have a strong ability to talk, she belted out every single song we played.”

“It was amazing to see how (Mitch) reacted to the music. We learned from Cathleen that he had quite a lot of anxiety issues, but when he began to listen to music, he seemed to become a different person. I was amazed to finally see the effect that this program had on those with dementia.”

“Anita’s daughter describes how her parents used to love square dancing. We see pictures of them in dance outfits. Then when “Ring of Fire” comes on, Anita begins moving in her chair and her daughter asks her to dance. They dance hand in hand, Anita wearing headphones and fully immersed in the music/dance and her daughter engaging with a big smile.”

Their essays likewise revealed how their perceptions of Alzheimer’s and dementia had changed as a result of the course:

“When I first started this course, I had the idea built up in my head that music would act as a kick starter for memory recall…. Overall the result I saw was vastly different. Music didn’t act as a tool to recall every memory that these individuals have had, it acted as a method to make life worth living again.”

“I always just assumed people who have been diagnosed with dementia can’t remember anything or are just old, crazy people. This mindset is terrible to have but that’s just how the media displays dementia. Having seen these dementia people firsthand at Jill’s House, made these negatives thoughts go away. Ruth and Lynn live with dementia, but they’re still people.”

“This course has changed the way I understand dementia as well as aging, (and) has allowed me to explore the wonders of working in geriatrics. Prior to this course, I had only learned briefly about dementia and other memory impairments in my recreational therapy courses. Yet this course was an empowering reminder on the importance of viewing (older adults) with dementia as whole people…. I have never considered working with geriatrics, but after taking this course, I am more inclined to pursue my career with this wonderful population.”

Most of those who took the course were freshman or sophomores. Follow-up later revealed that more than half of the 52 students who took the courses continued to volunteer and engage with people with dementia in their work, families and communities after completion of the course.

Other studies have shown the importance of music and arts for people with dementia. And music and arts have been used to teach medical students about caring for people with dementia. A documentary film about the role of music called “Alive Inside” brought attention to the role of music in caring for those with Alzheimer’s; a trailer for the film is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8HLEr-zP3fc. This study further underscores how music and arts might be used to better help to improve care for anyone with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Marc Flajolet, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.

Jennie Gubner PhD; Alexander K. Smith MD, MS, MPH; Theresa A. Allison MD, PhD: Transforming Undergraduate Student Perceptions of Dementia through Music and Filmmaking. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, May 6, 2020