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“We all respond to music”: How tunes are helping patients with Alzheimer’s

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MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- The Beatles.  Neil Diamond.  The Carpenters. Great music, sure.  But great medicine?


The state of Wisconsin is handing out hundreds of iPods to Alzheimer’s patients, as part of the “Wisconsin Music and Memory Initiative.”

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, researchers from UW-Milwaukee will study the patients to see whether their moods improve, and whether they are able to decrease their medications.

The program is simple. Participants will receive headphones and iPods -- loaded with their favorite tunes.

For example, Ken Reilly’s iPod is loaded with Christian music and lots of oldies.

67-year-old Ken Reilly lives at “Linden Court” in Waukesha. His wife says he’s had Alzheimer’s Disease for years.

“It’s kept him connected,” Beth Reilly said of the music on Ken’s iPod.

Beth and Ken met at Washington High School in Milwaukee. So, she picked music from their early years.

“He’s the love of my life, always has been,” Beth Reilly said with a laugh.

People familiar with the Music and Memory program say old songs can trigger fond memories and have a calming effect -- especially after dinner.  As it gets dark, many Alzheimer’s patients get agitated.  It’s called “sundowning” or “sundowner’s syndrome.”

“The music has brought a light back into his life, I think,” Beth Reilly said.

That life once included time as an Airborne Ranger in the U.S. Army, and raising children and grandchildren.

"We had music all the time. When you take it off, he doesn’t really want to part with it,” Beth Reilly said.

R.N. Manager Matt Lawrenz knows that first hand.

“When I took it off his ears, and I said, 'would you like it off?'  He said 'no,'" Lawrenz said.

Music was a game changer -- because before he started participating in the program, Ken Reilly hardly spoke.

“It was like, 'wow – this has really touched this man,'" Lawrenz said.

Lawrenz says Ken has been talking more since starting the Music and Memory program.

“It’s huge.  For him, it’s about quality of life.  I think the music has really improved his quality of life,” Lawrenz said.

Amazingly, since Ken Reilly has been listening to his tunes, Lawrenz says they’ve been able to decrease – or even discontinue – almost all of the drugs he took for anxiety and agitation.

Beth Reilly is grateful.   She says the drugs always made her husband tired, but when he's listening to music, he’s awake.

Why does music, in general, seem to work?

Neurologist Dr. Piero Antuono from Froedtert Hospital and the Medical College of Wisconsin described it this way: “We all respond to music.  It taps into the mind and soul of a person.”

That certainly seems to be the case at “Cedar Community” in West Bend.

The facility offers everything from independent living to memory care.  The staff uses music to hone physical, social and mental skills.

On a sunny April day, FOX6 News was invited to a private concert of sorts.

Lori Vandenhouten is one of the music therapists at Cedar Community.   She led a group of singers in a rousing version of “You Are My Sunshine.”

Vandenhouten plays guitar and sits on a chair with wheels, which she uses to roll across the room to reach the other singers, who are seated in wheelchairs.

“Cedar Community” also has its own band.   The band gave a little “concert” for FOX6 News as well, which included songs such as “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and “When it’s Springtime in the Rockies.”

The band members play drums, tambourines and maracas.

Lisa Kelling, another music therapist, directs the band members.   She says music is “just something that can give them such fulfillment in the littlest thing they can do.”

Pretty soon, “Cedar Community” will take part in the Music and Memory program too.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services says both Cedar Community and Linden Court in Waukesha are among the 100 nursing homes across the state that are certified to take part.

Kelling says some of the band members suffer from memory problems and she thinks they could benefit from the iPods.

“I can’t wait!" Kelling said.

Officials with the Department of Health Services say the state provides iPod Shuffles, headphones and iTunes cards which can be redeemed for songs.

One state official says the program will cost the state $180,000 -- but officials claim that the program is “fully funded” by civil penalties collected from nursing homes which are fined for violations.

State officials say researchers at UWM will study 1,500 Alzheimer’s patients in the Wisconsin Music and Memory Initiative, to see if the program results in a decrease in medications.

Dr. Antuono, who is not affiliated with the study or the Music and Memory program, lauded the use of music therapy in general.

When FOX6 News described the Music and Memory program to him over the phone, he said he thought the approach was good, but he said he had no idea if such a program would actually result in decreased medications for Alzheimer’s patients.

CLICK HERE to learn more about the Music and Memory program via the Department of Health Services website.

CLICK HERE to learn more about the Music and Memory program in general, via

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