Dementia and Alzheimer’s unfortunately plague the senior population, creating strangers out of loved ones. While medication and memory care facilities help treat those who suffer from this debilitating illness, music therapy offers a bright new treatment option that acts as a trip-wire to recognizing a lost loved one. Find out more in this interview with Music and Memory founder, Dan Cohen.
Most people agree that music is a great form of entertainment, socialization and overall enjoyment. Music is a multi-billion dollar industry and people dance to it, sing along with it and have purchased their favorite tunes—from the past days of record recordings to current days of iTunes downloads. The King is still “alive” when we hear Elvis belting a tune on the radio and memories of days long past can be instantly retrieved when reminiscing to a song. It’s no wonder that music has actually imprinted on our brains, making it one of the best-kept keepsakes locked in our minds.
In fact, music is more than a memory or catalyst for enjoyment. New research actually suggests that music can have a powerful impact on the human psyche and memory retrieval. In fact, in a recent interview with Music and Memory—a non-profit organization that promotes the health benefits association with music— founder, Dan Cohen, we learn just how much music can do for the human soul, psyche and dementia-diagnosed loved ones we think we’ve lost.
Read the interview below for insight into music’s powerful impact as a dementia therapy.
Music Therapy: Dementia’s Best Friend
Question: What are the benefits of personalized music?
Dan Cohen: For people who suffer from advanced Alzheimer’s disease—to the point when they can no longer recognize their own family or even speak—personalized music from one’s youth can have an amazing affect. People actually ‘awaken’ and can sing the music when they hear it—a wonderful thing for families and caregivers to experience after watching their loved ones’ transformations into strangers. You see, people often lose their sense of self and identity in a nursing home or assisted living facility. Nursing home staff know who someone is as far as a resident who is on a medication or daily routine, but actually knowing who people are—and their past—is a different story. Through music, senior housing staff and their residents are able to connect as a resident’s reaction to music can bring up fascinating questions, stories and conversations of the resident’s past.
Music actually brings back functions of the brain. It offers a ‘back door” of memory retrieval that is seemingly lost. In fact, while hearing and talking components are located in specific places in the brain, music is located throughout the brain. So often music remains preserved, even if parts of the brain are lost through dementia. And music from our youth is deeply embedded in our neuro-network, and it’s cumulative over time. So if people listen to music for three hours a week over a 10-month period, many of their cognitive test scores actually improve, according to a NY State DOH Dementia Grant program study. If a drug became available that could do this, it would quickly be a multibillion dollar blockbuster and everyone who has a family member with Alzheimer’s would be asking for it. When families and caregivers see engagement in response to music it’s a big “win” for them.
Another benefit is music’s ability to allow people to reconnect with themselves. When people go into a nursing home, they’re forced to leave much of their old life behind; much of their identity. So reconnecting with one’s self is personal and important; and music allows people to do this.
Question: How is it that a person can no longer recognize his family, or even speak, but upon hearing familiar music from his youth, will awaken?
DC: Music memory is preserved better than short term memory. The connections are made to events which trigger the memories and help people ‘reconnect.’ One of the main reasons people are moved into care homes is because of specific behaviors that don’t allow them to function outside of a care home. Often times, personalized music can help ease some of these behaviors and make people more comfortable when they’re having ‘episodes.’
Question: I’ve heard that senior housing / senior care facilities can have music & memory certification. Is that important?
DC: Yes, music and memory certification is important. Even though running iPods is easy, in a large institution, training is needed so that it works well within the logistics of the care community. Otherwise the music therapy treatment may not work at all. Right now If a family member wants mom or dad to have music, a staff member will often say” it will get lost, don’t bother,” or “I’m not equipped to do that.” Nurses have different shifts and if the therapy is not part of a schedule, it most likely won’t happen. Policies have to be in place. So music therapy may not happen unless there’s certification and integration into the routine of the community. And one of the key things about music therapy is that it’s consistent.
Neuroscientist Guggenheim Fellow, UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain, Music Has Power™ Award Winner, Petr Janata, PhD, has an interesting point:
“If music is such an important aspect of people’s lives from the time they are born, why is it that it doesn’t really occur to us, as a society, to provide people with music when they can no longer do what is necessary to provide it for themselves? Music has power, and we need to remember to keep everyone plugged in!”
Question: Agitation and sundowning are often difficult to deal with at home and in nursing homes. How do they do it now and does music offer an alternative?
DC: Because of the overuse of antipsychotic drugs to help manage the agitation and delusions, the federal government is directing all nursing homes to reduce their use by 15% by December 2012. However, sometimes antipsychotic meds are necessary. In a recent Music and Memory survey, when 26 nursing homes were asked if the use of personalized music has been effective with verbal and physical behaviors, 6 in 10 reported that it has been effective with many (55.9%) or all (5.9%) residents. When staff were asked if the use of personalized music can help in reducing use of anti-psychotic medications, 50% said yes and all of the others except one person said “maybe.” As there are no adverse effects of music, trying this approach, families have everything to gain and nothing to lose.
Question: Won’t putting headphones on someone in a nursing home further isolate them?
DC: When I started working in music therapy, people were a little annoyed with me because they thought putting headphones on residents would discourage interaction. But when I had an opportunity to do a wider study, not one person reported isolation. Residents not only liked the music, they became more social and began to interact more with their caregivers. Access to familiar music actually did the opposite of isolating them!
For example, residents’ grand kids became more likely to connect as their grandparents suddenly became more social when reminiscing about songs and music. The music actually served to bring back the dementia sufferers’ social behavior. And for the people in nursing homes and assisted living who didn’t get visitors, people didn’t know their backgrounds. The music allowed them to open up and share portions of their histories with others.
Personalized music is not a cure. People are not living longer, but people are more engaged and social, as opposed to no brain function or stimulation. In my book, that’s a good thing.
Question: How does a nursing home operate a therapeutic music program? Is it easy?
DC: It’s relatively easy. In terms of starting up a program, there is work up-front in terms of creating a play list for each resident. Every nursing home says it’s worth it, though, as they see the music’s positive impact on their residents.
Once you set up a resident with an iPod, they’ll get the benefit for the rest of that resident’s life. And the best part? It often costs less than 1 day of medication!
Question: It’s hard for many caregivers/family members to visit loved ones because of schedule conflicts or geographic limitations? Can they set up an iPod with appropriate music for my loved one and ask the senior housing staff to play it?
DC: If you are to ask 100 nursing homes that are not music and memory certified, “If I send you an iPod, will you manage it for me?” Most will answer “It’s a nice idea, but we’re really not equipped to do that.” Who is going to do it? Senior housing communities have specific schedules and different nursing shifts. Some people know how to use an iPod, others do not. This is why music and memory certification is so important!
Question: How can people help spread the word about the power of music?
DC: Visit the MusicandMemory.org website. If you contact us, we’ll send a PDF on how to set up an iPod donation drive or set up an iPod for loved one.
You can also watch this fascinating video that recently went viral on social channels: “Alive Inside Documentary Project,” created by Music and Memory about a man in a nursing home reacting to music from his era:
About Dan Cohen
Dan Cohen, MSW, is founder and Executive Director of Music & Memory, a nonprofit organization, which promotes the use of digital music technology to improve the lives of the elderly. The therapeutic outcomes of his work are portrayed in the documentary, Alive Inside. He has spent 20 years in technology companies, has served as a consultant/trainer for the U.S. Department of Education, and as an administrator of volunteer and community service programs for a consortium of 19 colleges and universities on Long Island.
The Music and Memory strategy is simple:
- Support the initiation of iPod-based personalized music programs regardless of one’s location (e.g., at home, in a nursing home, assisted living facility, hospital, or hospice).
- Raise public awareness about the benefits of keeping engaged with a rich personalized music environment regardless of physical, cognitive or social condition.