Dementia Patients: Reaching the Unreachable

New employees of the psychiatric unit at one regional hospital in Seattle have an interesting component built in to their orientation.  After the obligatory spiel of hospital rules and regulations, the lights are lowered and a movie is played.  Not a hollywood blockbuster, but the inspirational documentary, Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory.  

The Power Of Music

The film follows social worker Dan Cohen on his mission to demonstrate the power of music therapy in patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s.  During the advanced stages of these conditions, patients become nearly catatonic and spend hours and even weeks not communicating in any way with the outside world.  

The premise of Cohen’s program is to simply re-engage these patients through music.  In the film, world-renowned neurologist, Oliver Sacks, explains that one of the last parts of the brain affected by dementia and Alzheimer’s is the one that processes music.  Therefore, stimulating that part of the brain provides a sort of ‘back-door’ into a patient’s mind.  

Lasting Effects

The results are quite astounding.  The most touching transformation occurs with Henry, an older man in a nursing home who sits with his head bowed down, barely responsive and only answering to yes or no questions.  Once headphones are put over his ears and the music starts playing, something amazing happens.  Henry begins swaying in his chair, looking up and smiles with his eyes open wide.  After the headphones are removed, Henry is able to answer questions about the music and recount some of the memories he associates with it. He even begins to sing some of his favorite songs himself.

The key seems to be providing the patients with recognizable music from a time period when their faculties were still in tact.  Music imprints itself on our memories more deeply because it evokes emotions.  Just find some of the music you listened to in junior high/middle school and you’ll see how true this is.

Related: Psychiatric Nurse Salary and Career Opportunities

Moving Forward

As any gero-psych nurse can attest, working with patients suffering from these conditions can be difficult and heart-breaking.  The lack of these specialized nurses often means that almost every type of nurse will see a few patients with dementia.  Luckily, for the nurses at the hospital in Seattle, they’ll have another way to help them.

For more information on the documentary and ways to make a difference for your patients, see the Alive Inside website.

Next Up: Nursing Is In Transformation, And That's A Good Thing

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