Music & Memory

Back in 2013 I did some research on Music Therapy because I have seen how our elderly friends over the years have responded so well to music. There are so many studies out there that have proven that music is such a wonderful tool for those that have different neurological conditions including strokes, trauma, dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. It has also been proven that Music Therapy reduces depression among older adults, enhances social and emotional skills and decreases the frequency of agitation and aggressive behaviors.


I will never forget the day that resulted in me feeling the need to research this topic. I was on my way to the dentist at 7:30am after working a third shift, feeling tired and ummmm well who would be excited about going to the dentist?


As I was driving an old song that I remembered my mother playing often came on the radio. (We always had music playing in our home.) I couldn’t really recall any special meaning, I just remembered hearing the song when I was young and still living at home. I instantly turned it up and it took me to such a happy place that by the time I got to the dentist office I was in such a good mood.


On my way home I was really thinking about the affect hearing this song from way back had on me; how it really changed the way I was feeling. Hearing this song completely changed the mood I was in.

Then I thought of my elderly friends and how they have had to give up so much, some of them only relying on stimulation from their natural senses because they are not physically capable of doing much more. I started to realize how awesome it could be to really integrate “Music” into our daily care plan. I have certainly noticed over the years how they can light up with the sounds of music.


That night I was scheduled for third shift again and that is when I really dove into Music Therapy research. The next morning, with printed studies in hand, I was so excited about what I had found.


I started emailing Dan Cohen, a Social Worker who lives in New York that founded a Music and Memory program back in 2006, with my long list of questions; within 12 hours I had answers. I got right on this and was able to start an online live class within days to get certified in Music and Memory.



Music & Memory is not Music Therapy, it is a personalized Music Program tailored to each individual residents personal taste of music.


I always stress that if we are going to play music in our elderly care homes then it should be music from our residents time. When I think deeper into this, just because a certain song or artist was from my time does not mean I enjoy that music or that is brings me enjoyment to listen to it.


Our residents all have different taste so it is important that this program is personalized for each individuals taste in music for it to be effective. If we are just playing music from their time then it is considered just back-ground music. Over the years talking to our residents and/or their families about music I came to learn that some just enjoy Christian hymns, some love old-time country, I had one man that enjoyed Spanish music another that loved big band music, another Frank Sinatra and one told me when she was younger her family always listened to Polish music.


There are so many exciting benefits when it comes to this program. It has been well-studied and documented by distinguished researchers, including Dr. Oliver Sacks, MD, who was a Professor of Neurology, a best-selling author (best known for his collections of neurological case histories) and co-founder of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function. Dr. Sacks wrote the book “Awakenings” that was adapted into an Oscar Nominated movie starring Robin Williams and also one of his latest books Musicophilia. The book Musicophilia, so interestingly talks about how music helps with pain, with speech impairment, with motivation and how music can assist with movement, trigger emotions and aid in memory. For many years Dr. Sacks studied how the brain reacts to music but today it is possible to give the scientific backing to the power of music and how it can be so beneficial to those with brain injuries, such as those that are facing the diseases that a lot of our elderly face today. Dr. Sacks said that indeed, music occupies more areas of our brain than language does. He also stated in his book Musicophilia that music can calm and organize people whose memories are ravaged by Alzheimer’s or amnesia.


As some of you are aware often Antipsychotic medications are prescribed to elderly with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease to control symptoms such as agitation, psychosis, anxiety, insomnia and depression. Studies have been done that prove the Music and Memory Program has allowed some to reduce the intake of these types of medications from their daily medication regimen.


Our brains are hard-wired to connect music with long-term memory. Even for those with severe dementia, music can tap deep emotional recall. For those that are suffering from Alzheimer’s, more recent memories are compromised but memories from long ago are well-preserved. Music that was enjoyed in the past can often calm chaotic brain activity and enables the listener to focus on the present moment.


There has been ongoing research for years on Music and Memory and it has been proven that Music does enhance the quality of life in elderly that have all different types of brain diseases.

It has been published that familiar music may facilitate attention, reward and motivation, which in turn makes it more possible to manage emotional distress in those with Alzheimer’s disease. As the disease progresses, language and memory centers in the brain are the most vulnerable to damage. There are however, certain brain networks that remain relatively functional, such as the areas responsible for attention (the Salience Network). This is the same part of the brain that registers the enjoyment of listening to favorite music.


A study was done using MRI image comparisons that all showed significantly high functional connectivity with music playing during MRIs compared to no music playing during MRIs. This study was completed with several participants with dementia and the results showed that personalized music is a therapeutic mechanism to address measureable improvement in mood, awareness and quality of life for those living with this disease.


There has also been studies done that prove listening to personalized music a half-hour prior to eating can reduce swallowing complications in those with advanced dementia. This study showed that not only did swallowing improve but also increased food intake and reduced choking episodes.


It is not uncommon for the activity level in elderly to be very low. Often, when someone resides in a care facility, most of their time is spent idle waiting for help to the restroom or for the next meal to be served. Personalized Music can give them enjoyment, especially if it is music that is personally selected for them.


Elder care professionals are stating that this program is often life-changing for everyone involved. I must tell you that we have witnessed the unbelievable results of this program from the very beginning. After getting certified I purchased Ipods and headphones for all of our residents, set up an in-service training with all of our caregivers and sent out large packets of information to all of our families. These packets included an explanation of our program and the reason why we felt this would benefit all of our residents. I included several different play list with pages and pages full of different types of music. I asked them all to really give this some thought and to complete a play list with personal music they knew their loved one once really enjoyed. We had a custom storage area built in all of our homes for storage of the Ipods, headphones and chargers and a log book for staff to document how well the residents were doing with the program. I wanted everyone to get just as excited about this program as I was.


Julie was the first family member to respond. Julie’s father by this time had been at the Melody Brookwood location now for just over 4 years. When Julie got the packet she was very excited about it and responded rather quickly. I remember looking at the list she gave me and thought to myself “Wow I don’t think we have ever played any of this music in our homes”. His list consisted of Glen Miller & His Orchestra, Andy Williams and Golden Arabic Oldies. Even though we always played old music in our homes, we never were really playing the music that was considered his favorite, this just made me more excited to get this program going.


Julie’s dad was such a wonderful man and we all just loved him. I think every single one of us had a special bond with him. Now we were all witnessing the progression of his disease. Someone that once joked with us, smiled, laughed, teased, made funny faces, now was very quiet and withdrawn. He was really in a difficult place when we started this Music and Memory program. We noticed that most of his waking hours he was just starring off at nothing in particular and wouldn’t even engage in the television programs he once enjoyed.


Then we put the headphones on him !!!!! I could not believe how his entire demeanor changed. He smiled again, he laughed again, he sang, and you were in trouble if you tried to take his headphones off. It gave this man life again. When I called Julie and told her what was happening (it was emotional for both of us) she told me that her dad and mother use to listen to Andy Williams together years ago. It seriously was just magical.


Enjoying the Music & Memory Program


There is nothing better than knowing you gave someone something that brought some goodness to their day. I was asked to speak at this man’s funeral service and I was honored as I stood there with his Ipod in my hand. When I left the podium I handed his daughter Julie his Ipod and we both just cried. It really was such a beautiful thing to give him the gift of his own music that he could enjoy in those final weeks of his life.


At Melody Care Homes we have seen many times the benefit of using the Music and Memory Program with our elderly residents and how it brings more meaningful quality to their day.


Through the certification of this program the training touches on all areas including, why the use of headphones, what if the resident wears hearing aids, does this create isolation, how to introduce this to the residents and how to integrate this program and get your staff to follow etc. etc. etc. The time and effort put into implementing this program into daily care planning is so very much worth it.


Reminisce With Music


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