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For the Memory Impaired, Music Can Be Powerful Medicine

August 27, 2014

By Adam Raider

A now-famous YouTube video illustrates the incredible transformative power that music can have on seniors with cognitive and memory impairments. In it, a man suffering from Alzheimer’s hears music from his past piped through a pair of headphones. Previously unresponsive, he opens his eyes wide, sings, moves his body and, in the most compelling sequence, speaks about how the music is making him feel in that moment. It’s magical.

A recreation therapist thought music could be the key to unlocking the man’s seemingly lost identity. She was right.

Brain scans conducted by scientists have clearly shown that when people listen to music that is in some way familiar to them – maybe it evokes an important place, time or emotion for the listener – regions of the brain become stimulated, particularly the medial prefrontal cortex. That part of the brain plays a role in the retrieval of long-term memories.

The recreation therapists at Masonicare Health Center have witnessed firsthand how music can be used to improve the lives of residents and patients in their care, especially those whose memories are fading. The music program at MHC, which receives funding from The Masonic Charity Foundation of Connecticut, includes indoor and outdoor concerts as well as twice-weekly visits by strolling musicians to the long-term care, short-term rehab and memory enhancement (dementia care) units.

“When it comes to music, you and I may have our own individual likes and dislikes,” said Noreen Schmidt, Recreation Department Coordinator at the Health Center, “but music reaches every single person. Dementia care, high-functioning, low-functioning … you name it. It’s something that we, as caregivers, can always talk to someone about and use to establish a connection. Music is so important for this population, particularly our late-stage dementia care patients. Music may be all that they know or respond to. It’s also a great thing for the families of our residents. In some cases, the resident may not even recognize a member of the family, and that’s tough. But music can be a connection piece, a huge connection piece, for them to share. It just warms my heart.”

When used appropriately, music can shift mood, manage stress-induced agitation, stimulate positive interactions, facilitate cognitive function, and coordinate motor movements. But how is it that music continues to be such an effective therapeutic tool even for those with advanced dementia and Alzheimer’s?

A memory-impaired person might remember a favorite song by Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett       because rhythmic and other well-rehearsed responses require little to no cognitive or mental processing. A person’s ability to engage in music, particularly rhythm playing and singing, remains intact.

“The whole of what music does for our residents,” explained MHC recreation therapist Elizabeth Brewster, “can be summed up in a story about a resident I will call Edna. Edna is in our dementia care unit. She spends much of her time hunched in her chair, looking down, unaware of the environment around her. She’s unresponsive to almost everything, except when a musician comes into the unit. As soon as the music starts, out of the corner of your eye, you suddenly notice a bright-eyed, smiling face you’ve never seen before. There’s Edna, swinging her arms to the music, stomping her feet, moving her entire body from side to side in response to the music, looking around at everyone in the room. In short, she has completely changed. The funding we receive from The Masonic Charity Foundation has helped make that possible. If Edna were your mother, what would you be willing to give to make sure she has this experience on a regular basis?”