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K-State alumnus collects devices to help bring back lost memories

By Bryan Richardson

The love of music that Broadway musician Dave Roth and his mother share helps her overcome Alzheimer’s disease, if only for brief moments.

About a year-and-a-half ago, Roth, a Kansas native and K-State alumnus, attended a private screening of the documentary “Alive Inside” as an advocate and lobbyist for the Alzheimer’s Association.

Dan Cohen, the social worker featured in the film, demonstrated that listening to music from their past can help those suffering with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia overcome symptoms such as memory loss, disorientation and reduced speaking abilities.

Roth said his first thought was of doing this for his mom, a choir director for 35 years who is the source of his love of music. “You forget the thing that fed her soul as a human,” she said. “It was music. It was her life.”

Roth and his six siblings compiled music from her youth to play for their mom with the hope that something positive would happen. “This is a women with four words in her vocabulary,” he said.

When Roth visited his mom in Wichita, he placed headphones on the woman he said doesn’t really remember him anymore. She began rhythmically hitting her son to the beat and sang along to the music. Roth said he heard words that his mom hasn’t said in four years to him or any member of the family.

“That’s when I knew this works,” he said. “I saw it on film. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”

Now Roth is collecting iPods to enable others to share the same experience. His second annual Broadway Alzheimer’s iPod Drive started July 4 and will last through Aug. 19. He’s providing the iPods for Cohen’s organization, Music and Memory.

The dates are symbolic to Roth. The launch on Independence Day represents the music providing independence from Alzheimer’s. Aug. 19 is the anniversary of his parents, who both have the disease.

His parents lived in Meadowlark Hills for a time after being diagnosed, but now live in Wichita. “Watching them deal with the disease inspired me to learn more about it,” he said.

Roth said his mother, who received the diagnosis first, is particularly affected, saying very little. “With her inability to communicate, you don’t know how to help her or what her needs might be,” he said.

Yet, she was able to sing along with the music when it was played for her. (A clip of Roth’s visit to his mom can be found on Youtube by searching “Dave Roth Alive Inside.”)

In a clip posted on the Memory and Music website, Oliver Sacks, neurologist and best-selling author of “Musicophilia,” said personal memories can be embedded in music, which makes it useful in recovering the past when that can’t be done by any other means. “People can regain a sense of identity at least for awhile,” he said.

Roth said there are a few things to know about Alzheimer’s, one being that it’s the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. “You actually do die from the disease,” he said.

Of the top 10 diseases in the U.S., Roth said Alzheimer’s is the only one with no care or therapy to stop or reverse progression of the disease. “The experience is the same,” he said about Alzheimer’s over the decades. “We haven’t come very far. We haven’t done much.”

It’s a disease that’s growing in the numbers affected as the Baby Boomer generation gets older. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, it will cost the nation $203 billion in 2013 and $1.2 trillion by 2050.

Roth said he hopes the drive brings awareness to the issue as well as providing a temporary window to surface old memories.

Roth said the first drive produced 250 iPods, a number he thought was low. “Reporters would ask and I always hated answering because it just seemed so small,” he said. “I wanted to tell them 1,000 iPods.”

Roth said he was disappointed when he brought the iPods to Music and Memory officials, but they told him that was one of the biggest drives that ever been done. “It’s only going to get bigger, and it always has by other people doing it,” he said.

Roth said a theatre group in Houston, a youth orchestra in Chicago and a 16-year-old Washington D.C. did drives after finding out about his work. He hopes to inspire K-State to produce something similar, which is why he met with university personnel Monday in Manhattan before going to see his parents.

Roth figures half of K-State’s students would have an iPod, and many college students have a philanthropic spirit.

“College-age students are prime for creating something like this,” he said. “I think what I’m doing with my Broadway community is small compared to what a university can do.”

Roth said he understands that he’s more likely to have Alzheimer’s one day due to his family background. An exact cause for Alzheimer’s hasn’t been determined, but research indicates there’s a genetic aspect.

In addition to his parents, Roth’s grandmother also had Alzheimer’s, dying in the late 1970s about 30 years prior to his parents’ diagnosis.

Roth said he thinks about his potential future, but it doesn’t consume him. He looks to cancer as an example of what could happen for Alzheimer’s. He said cancer used to be a death sentence, but now people are living through it.

“I’m not being selfless,” he said. “There’s a part of me that says I need to help out my brothers and sisters and myself, and more importantly my nieces and nephews and my great nieces and nephews.”

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