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Musician helps Alzheimer's patients

Doctors say the right kind of music can help Alzheimer's patients interact with others better.
Doctors say the right kind of music can help Alzheimer's patients interact with others better.  


By Stephanie Smith
CNN

WEST PALM BEACH, Florida (CNN) -- The boom-bip and rat-a-tat-tat of songs like "Ain't She Sweet" and "When the Saints Come Marching In" ring through the air. Tony Sanso, a leftover of the ragtime music era, sweat glistening on his brow, is banging on the keys of a piano, while his audience, captivated, dances in front of him.

It may sound like a party, but actually it's a Thursday morning therapy session at the Alzheimer's/dementia ward of the Morse Geriatric Center.

"It's like a senior citizen Woodstock," Sanso said.

In some ways, it is. The cool, white halls of the Morse Center, though a far cry from the smoky lounges and clubs Sanso used to play, provide a musical focal point for this older generation. His music may do something for them that nothing else can.

Geriatric circuit

The scene at the Morse Clinic is almost dreamy, quiet. Before Tony enters the room, the residents mill around, some moaning. Their faces are listless, their eyes glistening under the haze of Alzheimer's disease.

Until Sanso arrives.

"When Tony comes in, the room fills up and they know he's there," says Michelle Capogrosso, director of therapeutic recreation at Morse. "It's fun, it's light, it's lively. The music starts, they're singing, there's clapping. Even the staff is involved."

But this isn't just about fun and games. According to Capogrosso, there is a therapeutic benefit to this "party."

The music stimulates patients' appetites and thirst, doctors say, helping them eat and drink enough to stay healthy.
The music stimulates patients' appetites and thirst, doctors say, helping them eat and drink enough to stay healthy.  

"The music really enhances their lifestyle, their quality of life," she says.

Dr. Juergen Bludau, the medical director at Morse, has seen immense benefits for residents there after Tony's routine.

"We've noticed that [the music] helps with hydration, it makes them thirsty, it makes them willing to drink," says Bludau. "It helps them...get to bed better. We are able to stimulate an appetite. So, it definitely has a positive impact on these patients."

Can music spark a dormant interest in life? Perhaps so.

A study on the impact of music therapy on dementia patients, conducted by Eastern Michigan University, determined that patients consumed 20 percent more calories when music was played during lunchtime -- food for thought, certainly.

The Alzheimer's Association also lists music therapy as a potentially enriching activity. Music, it says, can stir memories and encourage group activity through singing and clapping.

The Association and the Michigan study caution, however, that the tunes must match the musical tastes of the residents -- otherwise it could be harmful.

"They don't relate to Bon Jovi," says Sanso. "These people have lived a long time. I gotta do their thing, their music, you know."

A storied career

Since he can n olonger sing professionally, Tony Sanso now plays music for Alzheimer's patients.
Since he can n olonger sing professionally, Tony Sanso now plays music for Alzheimer's patients.  

He is qualified to play their golden oldies. A regular on the ragtime circuit in the 1950s, Sanso would mix slapstick comedy with music -- what he called "ironic satire" -- playing nightclubs in Atlantic City and New York.

Yet performing got to be more of a challenge with nearly every show, Sanso recalls. "I started to notice, like during the show, there'd be blank spots when I'd be singing, it would like go dead, for just a split second," says Sanso.

He went to doctors, who found bumps resembling chicken skin on his throat. Throat cancer, they said. Six years ago, he had a tracheotomy, and a career born under the lights came to an end under a knife. He'd never sing again, Sanso's doctor said.

But he could still play.

"Music is my life, and when cancer took my voice, I wanted to do something meaningful and productive," said Sanso. "What I'm doing now is much more meaningful and more spiritual than anything I've done before."

Sanso's efforts have paid off at More Geriatric Center, says Capogrosso.

"[The residents] think they're in their 20s or their 30s," she said. "They're able to remember the words of the songs, so when their families come here there is a bond where there wasn't any existing before."



 
 
 
 


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