By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
ADA — The strains of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” had barely begun and Anna May Stump was already out of her chair dancing.
Ohio Northern University student Madison Yoakum said Stump is a regular whenever the pharmacy students visit Vancrest of Ada.
“She’s the best dancer,” said Yoakum, a fourth-year pharmacy student from Bainbridge. “Every time she’s here she teaches me. I don’t even know some of the moves she does.”
“I love these kids. They are wonderful,” said Stump, smiling.
The visit is part of an ongoing effort by ONU pharmacy students utilizing music therapy to treat patients with Alzheimer’s disease and related symptoms, such as agitation, anxiety and depression. This is the third year for the program with the assisted living facility, and more than 50 students in the student chapter of American Society of Consultant Pharmacists (ASCP) are involved this semester.
The music therapy outreach helps students learn about the benefits of a nondrug approach to certain diseases as part of the expanding role of pharmacists, according to ONU College of Pharmacy faculty member Kelly Reilly Kroustos.
“The part of the brain that stores memories is the last to be impacted by Alzheimer’s dementia. Through music, memories are often stirred that are otherwise inaccessible because of the disease,” she said.
The students perform a range of music, such as traditional Christian, country and western, and big band. This visit also included a variety of Christmas music.
Yoakum explained that by playing songs the residents heard when they were younger, the memories come back.
“Sometimes they’ll just start singing along. Some of them will request songs and want to get up and sing with us. It’s amazing what it does,” she said.
Steven J. Martin, dean of the Raabe College of Pharmacy at ONU, said music trips neuroconnectors in the brain that are not necessarily “well oiled” in a patient with dementia.
“It helps to improve those connections, so the connection back to music that they’ve heard engages them with a memory that’s there,” he said. “That probably triggers some relief of anxiety. It helps people to feel more calm and relaxed. It helps reduce the need for things like anti-psychotic medicines and sedatives.”
The students act as “engagers” and “performers,” said Yoakum. Engagers interact with residents for 10 to 15 minutes at the beginning of each session. They also encourage the residents to use an instrument from the music box, like shaking a pair of maracas or a band of jingle bells.
The performers, meanwhile, play music for the residents. Autumn Koenig, a fifth-year pharmacy student from near Cleveland, has been playing the cello since she was young. On this particular day, she performed the Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
“I think one of the main benefits for the engagers is that you’re working with patients who have dementia. That takes a different skill set because they might be more nonverbal or hard of hearing, so it’s really great to practice communicating with them,” she said.
Yoakum and Koenig are music therapy outreach chairs for the group.
“As a third-year student, I came to a lot of these as an engager. I came to almost all of these, and that’s how I fell in love with it and decided that I wanted to help with it this year,” said Yoakum.
Students receive training at the beginning of the semester, including ways to talk to a patient with dementia, she said.
Abdulrahman Al-Malki, president of the student chapter at ONU, said students also do art and use fidget blankets with the residents. The blankets include features likes zippers and buttons that are meant to decrease agitation and anxiety. If a resident is receptive to the blanket, they’re invited to keep it, said Yoakum.
“Some of them get really excited about that,” she said.
The students come once a week as an organization.
“We tend to do the music more than the others just because the music, we see it’s working more than the others,” said Al-Malki. “They all have the same goals, the same target, the same end. But we see the residents love music more than other things.”
He said some patients don’t speak at all until the music starts. “But once the singing starts, then they’ll sing along with the lyrics. So you’ll be shocked how they remember and how they sing with them.”
“The skills the students learn from this experience are invaluable to them in their careers,” ASCP chapter advisor and ONU College of Pharmacy faculty member Kristen Finley Sobota said. “Not only do they foster the human skills, which are important, but they learn to engage with elderly patients.”
For Stump, it’s all about having fun. The former Lafayette resident said she likes all kinds of music and looks forward to these visits with the students.
“My father was a dancer. And my mother was always a dancer. This makes me happy,” she said.