Old movies, Old Music: Not Just Nostalgia

Old movies via DVDs, as well as CDs of big band music or other favorites of our elders' generation have long been used as a diversionary tactic. Now, Artists for Alzheimer's (ARTZ) is spotlighting a new way that movies can be used to enhance the lives of people with Alzheimer's disease. ARTZ is a nonprofit based in Woburn, Mass. that creates cultural opportunities for people with dementia and their caregivers.

Their program, Meet me at the Coolidge"and make memories, is an interactive film program for people with memory loss and their care partners.

"Short clips from classic films are shown, followed by audience discussion and reminiscence, guided by a moderator. This program demonstrates how film can be a form of treatment for some of the symptoms associated with memory loss, Alzheimer's disease and related dementia. The cinema has the power to connect us with our deep-rooted emotional memories - the kind that never leave us."

An article on AARP's website features an interview with program coordinator Peggy Cahill. According to the article, Cahill "noticed something interesting on the feedback forms she received from nursing staff and family members"dementia participants came away with more positive moods than usual and a greater attention span that lasted beyond the theater experience"caregivers reported a reduction of symptoms often associated with Alzheimer's, including anxiety, aggression, apathy and agitation."

Reminiscing is powerful medicine

My dad had dementia brought on by a failed brain surgery meant to help stave off effects of a World War II brain injury. During his ten years of dementia, DVDs were not readily available, but CDs were. I bought so many CDs that I swear I kept websites that offered big band music in business during those years. It was worth every penny I spent.

I bought dad a bandleader's baton so that he could "direct" the music on the CDs. When he was in an "awake mood," or if he was agitated, often turning on Lawrence Welk's versions of big band music, or a re-mastered recording via CD of Benny Goodman playing swing music improved his spirits, if only temporarily. Depending on his mood, Dad would direct the band or drum away on his lap. I even got him a small keyboard, though that experiment wasn't too successful.

The idea was to distract Dad from his current state of confusion and loss, and help him to mentally get back into a time when he enjoyed himself. The music itself was therapeutic, and the memories the music invoked added to the experience. Old movies would have done much the same thing.

Family caregivers can get some tips from ARTZ

While most of us aren't able to take advantage of the ARTZ program - geography being an issue - we caregivers can take some tips from their approach. When a loved one with AD is agitated or seems to be in a wandering mood, having a stash of DVDs from the era when your elders were young, probably the 1930s through the 1950s, can have an almost magical effect.

If you can take time to watch the movie with your loved one, you may want to stop the movie from time to time to discuss memories invoked by the film. This makes the experience more interactive and more closely resembles the ARTZ approach. If your loved one is in assisted living or a nursing home, have a chat with the activities director. There's a good chance they already are doing some programming related to old movies, but directing that person to the ARTZ site may give him or her a little more insight into making the experience more interactive, and perhaps by doing so, make it more effective.

I'm thrilled to see programs such as ARTZ recognizing the abilities of those with AD and other dementias and working with them to enhance their quality of life. We can't cure AD, but we can recognize the human needs of those affected by the disease, and work to meet those needs. In the process, we may actually slow their decline. At the very least, we are doing something positive to help them through the day.

For more information about Carol visit www.mindingourelders.com or www.mindingoureldersblogs.com.

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Carol Bradley Bursack
Meet Our Writer
Carol Bradley Bursack

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. This experience provided her with her foundation upon which she built her reputation as a columnist, author, blogger, and consultant. Carol is as passionate about supporting caregivers work through the diverse challenges in their often confusing role as she is about preserving the dignity of the person needing care. Find out much more about Carol at mindingourelders.com.