New music therapy program in Roanoke sparks memories for dementia patients

ROANOKE, Va. – A new music therapy program in the Star City has the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra teaming up with Friendship Health and Rehab to play music for memory care and Alzheimer's patients each week.

But it's not just a concert at the Friendship community. The healing arts program has a specialized schedule of songs and interactions to get the patients involved. There's a question and answer session and the patients use their own drum sticks or egg shakers to play along with the music.

Noel Anderson, a music therapist, says by having these memory care patients get involved singing along or playing their instruments along with the orchestra, they're able to stimulate more areas in their brain.

"Even when people are in the late stages of dementia and Alzheimer's, music can still reach them," Anderson explains. "Music catches our attention as well. So when you have a tension and emotion engaged, you have some powerful experiences."

It's a change in attitude you can see in just the first few songs. Patients that came into the session unsure, even confused about exactly where they were, were up and dancing within just a few songs. One specific song, "Appalachian Tidbits," has such a powerful impact on some of the patients that they asked to hear it played again.

These are songs that are helping bring back memories that for many of these patients have been crowded or completely gone for years.

"Even if it's the smallest talking about mom's flower garden and how they used to garden together, or movement on a river boat and going fishing," says Corey Meador, a speech and language pathologist at Friendship. "I've been able to honor some long-term memories that without the music and without that kind of prompt, we wouldn't have been able to target any other way."

During this week's session, one of the patients said the music was bringing back old memories, making her feel like she was back in piano lessons as a little girl.

It's a program that was more than a year in the works from the early planning stages by the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra until the first performance at Friendship Health and Living Community. Now, these musical visits are something many of these memory care patients look forward to each week.

While there are other music and memory loss programs like this across the country, this is the first of its kind here in the Star City. When the RSO started working on the idea, friendship was quick to get on board, inviting their memory care and Alzheimer's patients to the performances.

"It's exciting and a new experience for us to be able to say, 'Let's impact someone's life on a daily wellness level,'" says David Crane, the executive director of the RSO.

And as the pilot program comes to a close, that goal seems to have been a success. Staff members at friendship say they've seen big changes the music has had for several of the patients, including a change in demeanor during the week from nervous or unsure patients to seeing a calmer attitude.

And as far as the music choices, that's usually up to the patients.

"We always work with client preferred music. So if someone wants to listen to rap, we're going to do rap," says Anderson. "In this case, we're working with the symphony and doing a lot of classical music."

The specialized program focuses on music that many of the patients grew up listening to, like a classical waltz or church hymns they may have heard hundreds of times as a child. Another song performed during this week's session is the wedding march. It's sounds like that that tend to have more emotional impacts.