© 2023 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Why An Overland Park Teen Feels 'Fated' To Work With Alzheimer's Patients

Hasna Salam
Aaram Salam plays a piano recital for people living with Alzheimer's at a care facility in Johnson County.

Aaram Salam has two primary interests: piano, and Alzheimer's disease. At only 15, he's dedicated himself to combining the passions by playing recitals at nursing homes.

In many respects, Aaram Salam's life looks like that of a lot of 15-year-olds: he enjoys tennis, basketball, and music. But it's another of his interests that's shaping his future: helping those who live with Alzheimer’s.

He can trace the desire to his parents’ native India. As a small child, Salam spent parts of the family's annual visit with his great-grandfather who had the disease.

“I was too young to know what Alzheimer’s was,” Salam says. “He never talked to me because he was in the later stage of Alzheimer’s. So, honestly, I didn’t know what was happening to him, so that sort of brought me to a state of confusion.”

6.11.20_AaramSalamIndia_Hasna Salam.JPG
Hasna Salam
Aaram Salam volunteers at a care facility in India in 2016, when he was 11 years old. Meeting these residents is what fueled his passion for Alzheimer's.

On another family trip to the southwestern state of Kerala when Salam was 11, he asked to visit a care home run by the local Rotary Club. There, he interacted with people he says are the poorest of India’s poor, afflicted with a variety of illnesses.

Many children might have been intimidated, but Salam was not.

“They’re kind people. After you really know the people that have the disease, you start to realize it’s not a scary thing,” Salam says. “It’s a scary thing, but you realize the people themselves aren’t scary, and you shouldn’t feel nervous.”

When he returned home to Overland Park, he was ready to act.

“I feel like in a way you could say I was fated to meet the people with Alzheimer’s at the Rotary Center,” Salam says. “I learned more about the issue, and I started to use music. I thought of using music as a therapeutic treatment for them.”

He consulted family friend Harish Panicker, a neuroradiologist in Overland Park.

The two pored over MRIs of later-stage cases and examined temporal lobe atrophy. Panicker told Salam everything he thought would be useful about amyloid pathology, neurophysiology, and the biomechanics of Alzheimer’s.

During those discussions, Panicker says that Salam continually “expressed an interest in understanding more about the role of music and Alzheimer’s. It’s a well-documented fact that when patients with Alzheimer’s listen to music, that’s helpful. It creates a physiological response in them.”

And music was something that Salam could offer, even at a young age. Having played the piano since he was 7, he began giving recitals at various dementia care facilities.

6.11.20_AaramSalamIndia2_Hasna Salam.JPG
Hasna Salam
Aaram Salam says this man's story of being homeless with Alzheimer's increased his interest in volunteering.

As he played, he wondered if it was art in general that reached the minds of those living with Alzheimer’s, or if it was specifically music that helped. He took four fellow members of Barstow School's Alzheimer's awareness club to Care Haven, and they ran an experiment.

The students paired with residents to make drawings. “They came in and provided our residents with directions to illustrate the idea of memory and love," says Marie Rogers, Care Haven’s activities director. She says the residents "really enjoyed that intergenerational engagement. I know they loved sharing their stories with them as well.”

The residents then registered their well-being on the EVIBE scale after both the recital and the drawing exercise. To Salam, the most beneficial treatment was clear: “I found that the music helped as a therapeutic treatment for the patients better than art did, so that’s why I decided to continue with the music."

Hasna Salam
Aaram Salam listens to a man describe, through art, that living with Alzheimer's feels like living in a cage.

Rogers, who's also a board certified music therapist, says music is not only useful mentally and emotionally, but physically. As the disease progresses, motor skills begin to go, and music can structure exercise.

“The music can give us that auditory cue, and that can help frame our movements and the rhythm," Rogers says. "Like when we listen to music while we run or dance, that music can motivate and then it also organizes our movements.”

But Salam is still glad to have done the drawing experiment. One man drew himself playing golf in a cage to explain how the disease makes him feel.

“He can’t do anything anymore,” Salam says, “so he feels really trapped. That really sort of strengthened my passion for stopping [the disease], because if that’s the way the patients feel, I feel like we should help them get out of this situation.”

Even though music is a great temporary fix, he says he’d “like try to find something that could cure the disease completely rather than having those short-term effects. I want to have some long-term effects as well.”

He plans to study Alzheimer's when he's older. But until then, he'll continue offering escape, one recital at a time.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and powerful storytelling.
Your donation helps make nonprofit journalism available for everyone.