We all have them—those special memories, conjured by a song from the past. One chorus, and you’re back at that high school dance when you shared your first kiss, or with your best friends at summer camp, or on your first road trip away from home. One phrase, and you can easily recall all the lyrics that touched your heart.
Recently, I was deeply moved by the film Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory, which portrays the power of music to touch individuals. This documentary follows Dan Cohen, founder of the non-profit Music & Memory, as he introduces personalized music playlists to people living with Alzheimer’s in nursing homes. As the film illustrates, music has a way of tapping and evoking emotional memories, even for people with dementia.
Music, Emotion and Memory Are All Connected in Our Brains
Research over the past decade points to the reason why: In a 2009 study at the Center for Mind and Brain at UC Davis, Dr. Petr Janata discovered that the region of the brain that is stimulated by strong memories also tracks music—the pre-frontal cortex, just behind the forehead. This part of the brain is often one of the last to be affected by Alzheimer’s.
Individuals who have lost their ability to connect with the world may regain the ability to speak when listening to their favorite music—particularly songs from teenage years and early adulthood. Witness the remarkable reawakening of Henry, a resident of a New York City nursing home, who can suddenly articulate his love of music after hearing songs by Cab Calloway, in an excerpt from the film.
Music & Memory has brought personalized music playlists into nursing homes and other care communities across the U.S. and around the world. Their work has demonstrated that listening to musical favorites can increase residents’ social engagement and even reduce reliance on antipsychotics.
Hearing Musical Favorites Can Reduce Reliance on Antipsychotics
A 2017 Brown University research study of 25,000 nursing home residents in nearly 200 settings compared residents who had access to Music & Memory’s program to those who did not. Researchers found “that after homes adopted the program, residents with dementia became significantly more likely to discontinue antipsychotic and anti-anxiety medications and significantly less likely to engage in disruptive behaviors, compared to those residing in homes used for comparison.”
Sharing an individual’s musical favorites is an important way for family members to reconnect with a loved one who may seem remote or otherwise uncommunicative. Listening to beloved music can help to ease transitions between home and doctor’s office visits or adult day centers. Having access to those special songs can also make life in a new setting, from assisted living to the nursing home, more homelike. And a personal music soundtrack can provide profound comfort at the end of life.
To find a care community for your loved one that offers Music & Memory, click here. And if you’d like to see Alive Inside for yourself, you can rent the documentary on Netflix here. Be sure to bring a box of tissues.
President of Deborah Fins Associates, PC, since 1995, Deborah Liss Fins is a licensed independent clinical social worker and certified Aging Life Care® manager. Drawing on more than 35 years of professional experience in aging life care management, DFA offers comprehensive assessments and planning, guidance in selecting appropriate care, help identifying resources for financial support and professional consulting. Please contact us to set up a complimentary initial telephone consultation.
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