A New (and Better) Place to Dwell

Considering the remarkable power music exerts on our moods, emotions, and memories, it’s unsurprising that one of the most durable remaining abilities people living with Alzheimer’s/dementia enjoy is the recognition and pleasure in music meaningful to them. When people hear music deeply rooted to important memories, they are often transported to a more familiar, happier place.

One uplifting, entertaining example involves John “Sean” O’Malley, a patient living with dementia at Australia’s Blacktown Hospital. John’s mood is typically one of anger and agitation, but when given headphones and an iPod courtesy of Music & Memory®, he breaks into a joyful, animated impersonation of the King of rock ’n roll faster than you can say “Thankaveramuch!”

Like John, many of us find some of our most primary and important memories inextricably linked to music. Maybe you remember the song that took on a new and achingly beautiful meaning the first time you fell in love, or the first recognizable tune you could plunk, pick, or squeak out on piano, guitar, or your chosen band instrument. Remember the antsy excitement you felt waiting for the new release from a favorite artist, or the visceral thrill of dancing to a groove and forgetting your inhibitions as the music moved your body?

Music has the power to create indelible memories among the most powerful we humans experience, and this reality has profoundly positive implications for millions of people living with Alzheimer’s/dementia in long-term and memory care facilities.

Music Man Dan

Back in 2006, Dan Cohen heard a radio report about the popularity of music listening devices like the iPod. Dan was curious about whether these devices were being used in long-term care facilities, and after initial research, he discovered that none of the approximately 16,000 nursing homes in the United States offered personalized playlists or digital devices to store and play them. These facilities sometimes offered music therapy and occasional live performances, but they lacked playlists personalized to the resident’s background and taste.

Contemplating a future scenario where he might be subjected to someone else’s musical preferences in a long-term setting inspired Dan to act. A cold call to a nursing home green-lighted Dan’s first work implementing what would become the Music & Memory® program, and he went in equipped with his laptop, a few iPods, and set about creating personalized playlists for 10 of the residents.

Dan’s efforts went on to become a global smash hit. Today, Music & Memory® is active internationally as well as in all 50 states, providing musical playlists in 27 different languages to over 4,500 care organizations worldwide. The universal message: When familiar surroundings and faces have been left behind, people who live with a wide range of cognitive and physical challenges find renewed meaning and connection through the gift of personalized music.

A Personalized Playlist—the Beating Heart of Music & Memory®

Gauging from John O’Malley’s word-for-word mime of a few Elvis Presley tunes, it’s clear that the personalization of a playlist is essential to the overall success of using music to stimulate joy, engagement, and other remaining abilities. It’s doubtful John would undergo such a dramatic transformation if the player happened upon music unfamiliar or unpalatable to him.

In an ideal memory care setting, a music therapist would be on staff to help families and residents develop meaningful, effective therapy based on the unique history and musical tastes of each resident. But as Julie Hyland, director of Wisconsin’s Music & Memory® program, points out, not every facility has access to a music therapist. This is where Music & Memory® steps in.

Julie explains: “What we try to do, especially if they have family members and friends that are still involved in their lives, is to talk with those folks if the resident themselves is not able to vocalize what type of music or the artists that they're really interested in.” Using input from resident, family, and close friends, personalized playlists are developed and shared.

Music is a wonderful way of reconnecting an individual to their native culture, particularly when advancing dementia limits their ability to grasp second languages like English. “Through the progression of dementia, if somebody’s native language is not English, they may revert to their native language,” explains Julie. “So, if someone came to America from Germany, for example, and they have dementia, through the progression of the disease, they may end up reverting back to German. So, you would want to find music that is in German to help reconnect with that person, because they may have forgotten how to speak English.”

One can appreciate how the hit parade from Bavaria back in the 1930s might not leap instantly to mind, so to help families whose loved one is reverting to their native, non-English language, Music & Memory® offers playlists of music from different time frames in 27 different languages. Originally a student research project, this list is now a great help to families whose loved one remembers and longs for music from another time and place.

Music and Memory Can Change a Facility’s Culture

For an individual, the most pronounced benefit of participation in the Music & Memory® program is reconnection—with family and friends, certainly, but also with a younger, more vibrant version of themselves. This reconnection brings with it many significant benefits, including the reduction of chronic pain and anxiety, better response to therapy, an improved appetite, and increased sociability.

And these benefits spill over and begin to positively influence the culture of the care facility overall. “We’re really hoping that we can change the culture of long-term care environments,” says Julie. “We’ve had some organizations who have done a tremendous job where they’ve utilized personalized music prior to a planned activity and have seen more participation in the planned activity. And even peer-to-peer interaction after an individual or individuals are listening to their personalized music, they’re more engaged, they’re ready for the activity, and they’re communicating with each other.”

Testimonials regarding Music & Memory’s work in care organizations remark on significant benefits:

  • Participants are happier and more social.
  • Relationships among staff, participants, and family deepen.
  • Everyone benefits from a calmer, more supportive social environment.
  • Staff regain valuable time previously lost to behavior management issues.
  • There is growing evidence that a personalized music program gives professionals one more tool in their effort to reduce reliance on antipsychotic medications.

How Do I Get Started?

If you operate a care facility, Music & Memory® offers webinar training and consulting services tailored to your specific needs. If your loved one lives in a care setting that does not currently offer Music & Memory®, a contact form on the site will get you started right away. If you want Music & Memory® to come to you, you’re in luck! Listen to the podcast for more details or visit musicandmemory.org to access a form where you can plug in your zip code and find organizations you can contact about a home visit.

Download CPI’s Personalized Playlist Resource

Are you ready to lift your loved one’s heart with joy? Click the resource box at the bottom of the page to download this quick guide to renewing pleasure in life through music. With this free resource from Music & Memory® creator Dan Cohen, generously shared with us to share with YOU, you can spread the joy of music. Inside, you’ll learn how to:

  • Find your loved one’s favorite music.
  • Create an iTunes account.
  • Play music on an iPod.
  • Use music to connect and reminisce.

If you’d like to contribute to Music & Memory®, there are interactive buttons on the website, including “Volunteer”, “Give an iPod”, and “Donate Now”.

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Guest Biography

Julie Hyland earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration from Edgewood College and was introduced to Music & Memory® while working for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. She joined Music & Memory® to establish a student volunteer program to educate and create intergenerational volunteer opportunities for high school and college students in Wisconsin. Listen to the podcast to learn about Julie’s work with students through the Music & Memory® volunteer program.

More Great Information About How Music Can Improve Dementia Care

Check out these helpful posts to learn more about how music can enrich the lives of those living with Alzheimer’s/dementia: