DARIEN, Ill. >> Alan Pasquesi has a vacant look on his face as his wife puts the white headphones over his ears.
The 65-year-old Darien man has primary progressive aphasia, a condition that during the past 12 years has taken away his ability to speak or understand language.
But when the music — maybe some Bruce Springsteen or the Eagles — starts playing, something changes.
His feet start tapping and his head bobs a little. His eyes gain some sparkle. He smiles ever so slightly.
Pasquesi and his family are part of a national program run locally by a DuPage County service agency that introduces families caring for a loved one with memory loss to the wonders music can have on the brain, even if it can’t remember much else.
Music is a “back door” to the parts of the brain that are still working, said Dan Cohen, founder and executive director of the New York-based nonprofit Music and Memory.
“Our love of music is really connected with our emotional system, which is still intact no matter how advanced someone’s dementia is,” he said.
Debbie Pasquesi, Alan’s wife and full-time caregiver, says music has allowed her husband to take part in activities she previously avoided doing with him, things as simple as visiting a pumpkin farm with their kids and grandkids this fall.
Previously, she said, “He would have been crazed there and he couldn’t have handled all the stimuli. We brought him, but we put his earphones on, and he was fine. He was very relaxed.”
Music therapy is being introduced to seniors who take part in Metropolitan Family Services DuPage in-home respite program, launched in 2002.
Two years ago, Jody Kanikula, director of the agency’s music and memory program, was deeply moved by “Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory.” The documentary explored the benefits of giving seniors with memory loss iPods equipped with a personalized playlist of music they enjoyed earlier in life. It inspired her to apply for a grant to purchase the movie to air at public events. A donor who saw it was so moved he offered to provide the funds for the launch of the initiative this fall.
Respite volunteers interview the seniors and their caregivers about the music they like and their lifestyle, asking questions such as where they used to go dancing, what some of their favorite movies were and what their wedding song was, while also sifting through their albums, CDs and cassettes.
“After the volunteer gathers all the information then we have our chair of music and memory, a retired music teacher from Naperville, put together playlists,” Kanikula said. “We’ve seen some really great results. The initial reaction generally is wonder or joy. When you put the music on you can see them come back. Their eyes will open, they’ll sit up a little bit. Depending on where they are in their disease, some people will start singing, some people will start talking about music.”
Volunteer Cathy Johnston introduced Alan Pasquesi to Music and Memory in October.
“It’s music you’re familiar with, that you loved. It is your type of music, not just any music,” Johnston said. “It has a definite effect. There is a calming there and it does help the patients focus. With the music they are more focused on everything they’re doing, rather than not knowing where to focus.”
Johnston witnessed that with Pasquesi when she presented him with a playlist of about 150 songs compiled from his music collection, much of which is rock from the 1970s and 1980s.
As his condition has progressed, Pasquesi has lost his personality and every day has revolved around his basic needs — sleeping, bathing and eating. He also became compulsive with food, snatching up any morsel he comes near.
When Johnston put his headphones on for the first time, the change was immediate.
He had a leisurely, 40-minute lunch; before that, the meal would have been devoured in a matter of minutes.
Music also has helped during car rides, which Pasquesi could hardly handle — making it difficult for Debbie to take him anywhere on her own.
“If he’s calmer, I feel better,” she said, adding that she feels it is important her husband gets out of the house, to expose dementia and his condition to others and help fight the stigma that surrounds it.
Some of Pasquesi’s symptoms can be treated with antipsychotic drugs, but Debbie said that since being introduced to the music therapy, she has not had to elevate his dosages.
Cohen, the Music and Memory founder, hopes his program gets a chance at every health system in the nation. Until then, he suggests people make an effort to introduce it to elders in their family on their own, by making personalized playlists with them.
“They’ll benefit now,” he said, “and it will have extra rewards later on, when they can’t remember what music they love.”