Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Dimensions of Dementia: The Role of Art and Music



Shirley Woolaway

Thank goodness for music and art. Try to imagine a world without them and it is too difficult to contemplate, for they give us beauty and take us to places we’ve never been or send us back to experiences from the past. Important to most of us, music and art are especially so for those with dementia.

Recently I heard of a local artist, Jane Thomson, who created beautiful art until dementia limited her ability to meet her standards, so she stopped creating anything. That is, until a staff member at the Alzheimer’s Support Network asked her to paint a happy elephant for a special purpose. Jane did and her joyous elephant appeared on every t-shirt worn by many participants at the recent Elephant Fest held at the Naples Zoo. Jane was honored posthumously by the network. Her husband, Bill, told her story along with Marianne Troy, a social worker at the network who encouraged Jane to continue to create art.

Participants at the Fest also enjoyed diverse musical offerings during the tribute ceremony, while other musicians, located around the zoo grounds, kept us entertained and singing or humming along with them. So while I, and others, shed tears at lakeside tossing our carnations into the water in memory of loved ones, the music, as we walked along from one animal habitat to another, kept us smiling, just like the happy elephant on our t-shirts. I bet artist Jane is smiling too.

Yes, music can make us happy. That’s a given, but dementia patients in nursing homes? Check out to see a video of Henry, a nursing home patient, as he listens to the music of Cab Calloway. Henry is happy, alive, and movin’ and groovin’. Before listening to Calloway on his own personal IPod, Henry was slumped in his chair looking as though he was not long for this world.

The idea for using personal IPod music in nursing homes came from Dan Cohen, who made a documentary, “Alive Inside,” in 2012 featuring Henry and others with dementia. The video showed the amazing results of using a hearing device personalized with music from the listener’s past. Cohens’s background is in technology, sales and software application, and social work. He started trying out his idea where he worked, and with positive results many nursing homes took up the idea, securing IPods for their dementia patients. Cohen maintains that music is good medicine as it can reach back in one’s mind to musical memories that linger longer than others. His site makes it easy for the public to donate money for new IPods that will go directly to a nursing home patient or to turn in gently used older ones.

In the September 2016 issue of Natural Awakenings, a free Naples magazine, writer Kathleen Barnes summarizes the results of studies that support music as good medicine. For example, researchers at Florida’s University of Miami School of Medicine found that people who participated in music therapy for four weeks experienced increased levels of the calming brain chemical, melatonin.

Another study by England’s Royal College of Music found that drumming can better counter depression than Prozac. Those who participated in a weekly drumming group experienced significantly reduced symptoms compared to a control group.

Also from the magazine article, a joint study by German and British researchers published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, confirms that simply listening to soothing music results in significantly lower levels of the

Submitted Photo:Bill Thomson wears a happy elephant t-shirtat the recent Elephant Fest held at theNaples Zoo, a benefit for the Alzheimer’sSupport Network. His late wife, Jane Thomson,created the joyous elephant whiledeclining due to dementia.

Submitted Photo:Bill Thomson wears a happy elephant t-shirtat the recent Elephant Fest held at theNaples Zoo, a benefit for the Alzheimer’sSupport Network. His late wife, Jane Thomson,created the joyous elephant whiledeclining due to dementia.

stress hormone, cortisol. The more intense the experience is in singing or playing an instrument, the greater the stress reduction.

Still another collaborative study by several Swedish universities caused participants’ heart rates to synchronize, producing relaxation effects similar to that achieved through group meditation. For the full article go to

If you’re still not convinced that music is a great gift to those with brain disease, consider an 11-week experiment involving weekly singing sessions for those with Parkinson’s disease. One of the dementias, Parkinson’s, can cause a weakened voice and decreased breath control. Kelly Richardson, PhD, a speech-language pathologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s School of Public Health and Health Sciences, approached a support group for Parkinson’s in Worcester, Massachusetts about participating in her experiment. She recruited a choir director to provide vocal and breathing warm-ups as part of the program. Each week the singing became louder and stronger. At the end of the 11 weeks, the group sang to a standing-only crowd. Dr. Richardson was so impressed by the participants’ improvement (with stronger voices, some of them could phone their grandchildren for the first time in ten years) that she hopes to conduct a randomized controlled trial to determine the effectiveness of breathing exercises with singing as a treatment plan. See (October/November 2016) for the full story.

Music is a part of every meeting of the Alzheimer’s Association support group on Marco Island, usually offered by Tom Weis on the guitar. The group consists of caregivers and those they’re caring for. Those with dementia often like to listen, sing, and dance to the music, while caregivers may choose to join them or listen to a speaker or share with others.

This month’s meeting of the group will be at the Marco Island Center of the Arts with Tom providing music while participants try their hand at working with clay. We’ll have various levels of ability and will do just what we’re currently capable of, whether our decline is from normal aging or dementia.

I’m reminded of a local Marco Islander, Jack Markel, who no longer is able to create beautiful stained glass windows. He’s adapted his creative output now to showing friends and neighbors how to use broken stained glass pieces to make candles with the help of his wife, Barbara.

It’s a lesson we all can learn. Instead of fretting about what we no longer can do, to focus instead on the positive and do what we still can do. So it follows that when I create something with a ball of clay at the art center next week, I’ll try not to compare it to one made years ago on the wheel. Actually, that creation wasn’t so great either.

Shirley Woolaway has an M. Ed. in counseling and worked in journalism, in business, and as a therapist in Pennsylvania. She has 25 years personal experience with dementia as a caregiver for family members with Alzheimer’s disease, and nine years as the coordinator of an Alzheimer’s Association memory loss/caregiver support group, earlier in Pennsylvania and now on Marco Island. We believe that Shirley’s insights will prove helpful to many of our readers.

For help on all aspects of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias call the national Alzheimer’s Association confidential, 24/7 helpline at 800-272-3900 or the local Bonita Springs office at 239-405-7008 for care consults and support group information. Also helpful with local educational programs, workshops, and support groups, is the Naples Alzheimer’s Support Network, 239-262-8388.

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