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Ohio State student organization uses music therapy to aid dementia patients

a student with the dementia project dances with a resident at a silent disco

Kaylie Glenn, a co-founder of The Dementia Project, an Ohio State nonprofit organization, dances with a nursing home resident at a silent disco. Credit: Courtesy of Ege Karcia

Kaylie Glenn was 10 years old when she played violin for the memory care facility where her mother worked. As she began to play, one of the patients — a former opera singer — started singing, and it ignited a spark in Glenn. 

She found her passion, but not in violin — in dementia care.

Glenn, a second-year in neuroscience, said she created the Dementia Project, an Ohio State student service organization established with fellow student Ana Burk to use music therapy to alleviate some of dementia’s effects. 

Burk, a second-year in neuroscience and the organization’s secondary leader, said Dementia Project members earn a deeper understanding and care for those who are affected by the disease. She said they help those with Alzheimer’s and other causes of dementia through physical touch, interaction and art therapy.

“People need to be willing to dig in and help them find themselves,” Burk said. “Watching them become who they truly are is incredible.”

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, six million Americans have Alzheimer’s and one in three seniors die with some form of memory loss.

Glenn said they use music and dance to rhythmically engage both the body and brain.

“Our memories are stored in rhythm, and that’s a skill that’s preserved throughout dementia,” Glenn said. “When patients listen to a personalized playlist, they come alive to the music, it’s astounding to see.”

Burk said music therapy helps bring back memories and emotions through some of the popular music of their time. 

“You hear a song that came out from middle school and you know every single word from that song and all those memories come rushing back,” Burk said.

Burk said her background in neuroscience and music is what drew her in, but what hooked her to come back every day was discovering how working with the patients made her life better.

“Seeing the room light up and watching 90-year-old people stand up and dance more than I could was incredible,” she said. “It’s truly indescribable.”

Burk said her favorite moment was when she had an orientation at the Kemper House Alzheimer’s & Dementia Care center in Worthington, Ohio, where she met a resident named Judy.

“She said, ‘I love you’ and I told her I loved her back,” Burk said. “It was eye-opening to me and she was so joyful, that’s why I think what we do is so amazing, because bringing those moments of joy.”

Burk said a particular event the Dementia Project got to experience with residents was a silent disco — where people listen to music using headphones. She said the organization hopes to repeat the event in the future.

“They started dancing with the person next to them and with us,” Burk said. “We are able to share that experience as a community.”

Glenn said even though it is upsetting the patients may not remember the experiences they’ve shared, the memories will live in them.

“Maybe the point of it all isn’t to get to that stage in the nursing home where you look back on your life and everything you did,” Glenn said. “Maybe it’s to live for others and by living for others they will remember you.”