WYOCENA — Every human brain comes equipped with a music box.
It’s the part of the mind that stores familiar songs and verses; that’s why most people know, until the day they die, songs like “Happy Birthday to You.”
The music box of the mind is so strong that it usually can withstand the ravages of memory loss, Columbia Health Care Center activities assistants Stephanie Kleist and Kelly Lentz told members of the County Board’s CHCC Committee on Tuesday.
With an electronic music storage system, a playlist chosen for each individual, a pair of headphones and trained workers, music can unlock memories, reduce the use of anti-anxiety medications and stimulate people with memory loss to be more active and aware of the world around them.
“It’s like jump-starting a car,” Lentz said. “The music is the spark to get the brain going again.”
In the last two years, CHCC in Wyocena has become a pioneer — in Wisconsin and beyond — of exploring the ways in which tapping musical memories restores health and happiness to people who experience memory loss.
Lentz said she and Kleist — who were among the first in Wisconsin to get certified in Music and Memory — now teach others what they’ve learned, including visitors from other states interested in inaugurating Music and Memory in their facilities.
Kleist and Lentz offered a short multimedia presentation on Music and Memory to the County Board committee that oversees CHCC — a committee that has been reorganized with the April start of the current two-year County Board session.
The presentation includes an introduction, by video, to 99-year-old Evelyn Coellen, who lives in CHCC’s Birch Boulevard neighborhood.
Left to herself, Coellen doesn’t say or do much.
But give her “her music” — an iPod with headphones, loaded with songs like “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “You Are My Sunshine” — and she comes to life.
The video shows her singing along with the verses of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” then rendering the refrain with both gusto and moving hands that suggest the possibility that she once knew how to play the piano: “Glory, glory hallelujah!/Glory, glory hallelujah!/ Glory, glory hallelujah!/His truth is marching on!”
How the Music and Memory program works depends on the needs of the resident, but usually they get “their music” on a set schedule, for maybe 20 minutes at a time.
“If we played the music all day long,” Kleist said, “it would become background music, and wouldn’t do what we want it to do.”
For some residents, Kleist said, putting on the music as they wake up in the morning helps them start the day alert, cheerful and able to help participate in their care.
For Coellen, one morning music session happens just before a group activity, like tossing around a balloon.
But even when the earphones aren’t on, Music and Memory works for her.
In the late morning Tuesday, she was sitting at a table by herself, staring downward. A glass of berry juice sat, untouched, in front of her.
Then Lentz began to sing to her: “Let me call you sweetheart, I’m in love with you…”
She joined in: “Let me hear you whisper that you love me, too.”
After the song, she caught the eye of a stranger, and said, “Won’t you sit down?”
And after a little more singing, she took a sip of juice.
Kleist said there are 25 CHCC residents who participate in Music and Memory, and there are 40 iPods available. Some of the residents got their own iPods from family members, and other people have donated iPods to the program.
The music that is loaded onto each participant’s iPod consists of songs that they know and love. Sometimes a staff member notices that the person responds well when a particular song is played. Often, family members suggest songs that mean something to the participant.
For example, there’s a man on Birch Boulevard that responds well to songs like “Roll Out the Barrel” and “In Heaven There is No Beer.”
Others have playlists with country artists like Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline. Others have hymns — though Lentz said she has learned from experience that a resident may respond well to one arrangement of a particular hymn, but not another.
Kleist said the music helps people with memory loss “rewire” the parts of their brain that may have been lost to dementia.
Which raised the question: Would Music and Memory work for people faced with brain disorders other than dementia?
Kleist said Music and Memory worked so well with a stroke survivor that, when his temporary rehabilitation stay at CHCC ended, his family bought him an iPod of his own to take home.
Also, she said, some people with Parkinson’s Disease can tap into the rhythm of music to help restore their abilities to do things like feed themselves.
After the presentation, several committee members shared stories about older friends and relatives who have found stimulation and joy in music.
Committee Member Susanna Bradley of the town of Caledonia observed, “As you do this longer, I would be very interested in the long-term effects.”
“It’s like jump-starting a car. The music is the spark to get the brain going again.” — Kelly Lentz, Columbia Health Care Center activities assistant