Kansas Community Hit Hard By Alzheimer’s Finds Help In Music

Jan 26, 2016

An estimated 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease.

That number is projected to nearly triple by 2050 as the U.S. population trends older. Currently, there is no cure for the disease and no treatments shown to slow its progress.

Clay County, in north central Kansas, has the nation's highest rate of people on Medicare diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. At 22 percent, it’s roughly double the rate in surrounding counties, as well as state and national averages.

The director of the University of Kansas Alzheimer’s Disease Center, Dr. Russell Swerdlow, doesn’t have a ready explanation. But he thinks it’s unlikely the difference is due to genetic or environmental factors unique to the north central Kansas county.

“Clay County may not be a risk factor for getting Alzheimer’s disease. It may be a risk factor for becoming diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease,” he said.

The rate spike began in 2010, shortly after three new family practice doctors came to town. Swerdlow is careful not to say patients are being overdiagnosed in Clay Center. He said it could be that the disease is underdiagnosed elsewhere.

Either way, the numbers and the reasons behind them aren’t the main concern for people who live in Clay County. They’re more focused on helping friends and family members who are suffering from Alzheimer’s. And a new music therapy program has given some of them a way to do that.

The Linn Community Nursing Home north of Clay Center is one of about two dozen in Kansas participating in a program called Music and Memory. Residents with Alzheimer’s are given iPods loaded with music tailored to their preferences.

Sorting out each resident’s musical tastes is a lot of work. But the nursing home has a secret weapon: Dozens of students from tiny Linn High School have volunteered to help.

Kaitlyn Ohlde, right, goes through a playlist with Linn Community Nursing Home resident Lila Schaefer.
Credit Marcy Oehmke / Linn High School

Just before Christmas, junior Kaitlyn Ohlde was going through a playlist with resident Lila Schaefer.

“Would you like to listen to some Christmas music?” Ohlde asked. Lila responded with an enthusiastic, “Oh, yes!”

And even though Lila had a tooth removed just a few hours earlier, she sang along as “Silent Night” played on her headphones.

Martha Hornbostel directs the Music and Memory program at the Linn nursing home. She explained that Lila and many other people with Alzheimer’s or dementia tend to become agitated as evening approaches — a phenomenon known as “sundowning.” 

“She can be so happy and so bouncy, and then come sundown time, she’s wailing because she’s just anxious,” Hornbostel said. “So I loaded an iPod real quick with her type of music, walked right out to her and said … ‘Let’s put some music on.’ And, oh, she was continuing to wail. As soon as I put the iPod on and the headphones on, she sat up a little straighter and she quit.”

Swerdlow, the KU Alzheimer’s specialist, said the music therapy program isn’t going to halt the disease’s progress. But he said it may help soothe patients by keeping them connected to some of their memories.

“If people used to dance to a certain kind of music, that motor memory is stored in a different part of the brain than the episodic memory that is destroyed in Alzheimer’s disease,” he said. “This procedural memory is preserved much further on into the course of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Nurses at the Linn Community Nursing Home said some residents like Lila are able to use music instead of mood-altering drugs to manage their emotions.

Interest in the program is growing. The Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services recently announced $38,000 in grants to bring the Music and Memory program to 30 more nursing homes across Kansas.

Bryan Thompson is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.