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A Trip Down Melody Lane

A new program at Sharp Coronado strikes a chord with patients
Photo by Tom Hanscom/Sharp HealthCare

By Kimberly Cunningham

Scientists and doctors have long recognized the transformative healing power of music. To that end, Sharp Coronado Hospital is collaborating with UC Davis and the California Association of Health Facilities on a research study developing quantifiable data to see whether music is an effective treatment for patients in long-term care facilities.

Last August, Sharp Coronado became a Music & Memory Certified Care Organization. The Music & Memory program, subject of the 2014 documentary Alive Inside, brings personalized music to the elderly and chronically ill who suffer from severe cognitive and physical disabilities. Based on information given by patients or family members, caregivers create custom playlists with songs from a patient’s formative years and download them onto music players.

Assessment questions range from “What were some popular music genres when you were in high school?” and “Did you participate in a church choir, ballroom dancing, or ballet?” to “What song did you dance to at your wedding?” and “Have you ever served in the military?”

Many long-term patients live in variable states of consciousness and must reckon with the reality that they may never return to their normal routines. Though their maladies may run the gamut, a majority of them can still hear. The program’s goal is to trigger music-related memories and ultimately inspire a flicker of life in an otherwise monotonous day-to-day.

“This is their home, and having their music is one more thing that makes it feel like home,” says Lynn, whose husband is a patient at Sharp Coronado in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease.

Lynn’s husband is also a former musician. His playlist includes his own recordings as well as Bob Dylan and country singers Robert Earl Keen and Billy Joe Shaver.

“Music is a universal language. It’s powerful for everyone, no matter what their mental or physical status is,” Lynn explains. “I have to believe it’s something that he knows. I’ve got to believe it’s comforting.”

Since the program’s launch, staff and family members say they’re seeing incredible changes. Sharp’s new research study aims to take the program one step further and show its efficacy as a medical treatment. Caregivers at Sharp Coronado and similar facilities across the state are tracking reduced agitation and reliance on pain medication as a direct result of the music.

Activity aid Vanessa Radilla tells the story of a 40-year-old patient in the sub-acute unit, one of the first residents to try the program. He was nonverbal, prone to kicking and hitting, and often so hyperactive that he would fall out of his chair after 10 minutes.

“When he heard the music, he got this huge smile. He was up for a good hour and a half, laughing, crying, reactions you would never get before,” Radilla recalls. “I thought, ‘Wow! This is amazing. We should do this for other patients.’”

What started with 15 music players quickly grew to 35 and then 55, thanks to support from the Coronado Hospital Foundation. Today, about 80 percent of patients in Sharp Coronado’s long-term care facility participate in the program. A Sharp spokesman expects data from the study to be released in the next few months.

But for these patients and their families, the music is much more than a set of numbers. It is light and joy in the hardest of times—something familiar in an unfamiliar world.

When asked if there’s a specific song that sparks an especially positive reaction from her husband, Lynn knows the answer right away. She nods and says, “Amazing Grace.”

Donations Welcome

Help build Sharp Coronado’s music library by bringing used CDs and iTunes gift cards to Villa Coronado Skilled Nursing Facility, 233 Prospect Place, Coronado.

A Trip Down Melody Lane

Photo by Tom Hanscom/Sharp HealthCare

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