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The Power of Music for Dementia

A couple of years ago, my friend Jim Stone and several others readers sent me a remarkable video about Henry. At the time of filming, he had been 10 years living in a nursing home in dementia care - listless, unresponsive and as one person says in the video, hardly alive.

Then he was given a iPod filled with music from the era of his youth. Watch what happened:

Henry's life was changed due to the efforts of social worker Dan Cohen to bring iPods full of music to dementia care homes throughout the United States and Canada. The results are remarkable. As explained on Cohen's website, Music and Memory,

”...our brains are hard-wired to connect music with long-term memory.

“Even for persons with severe dementia, music can tap deep emotional recall. For individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s, memory for things — names, places, facts — is compromised, but memories from our teenage years can be well-preserved.

“Favorite music or songs associated with important personal events can trigger memory of lyrics and the experience connected to the music. Beloved music often calms chaotic brain activity and enables the listener to focus on the present moment and regain a connection to others.”

Today, 18 July, a movie about Cohen's efforts to bring music to millions of dementia patients opens in cities around the United States. It is titled Alive Inside and it reveals the power of music to restore a measure of life, memory and pleasure to people who have been semi-comatose.

This is the official Alive Inside trailer.

There is a list of opening dates and venues in various U.S. cities for the movie at the Alive Inside website.

At the website for Dan Cohen's Music and Memory nonprofit organization, you can make a tax-deductible contribution to help bring music to more dementia patients, and you can read about the research and science behind the music that is changing the lives of patients and their caregivers.

As I was writing this story, it occurred to me that perhaps among all the papers we have for end-of-life issues, we should all make a list, or even a thumb drive, of the music we loved in our youth and listened to throughout our lives so that should dementia become our fate, caregivers would not need to guess.

This is a local news story showing how music has affected the lives of some residents in care home in Pennsylvania:

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Mary Mack: Dinner With Mom


This is wonderful stuff. Thanks.

I already know what I would put on mine. What a great discovery.

I saw a 30-minute version of this film at Dr. Bill Thomas' "Second Wind" tour in Seattle. It's pretty amazing.

The thumb drive or list is a good idea. People could easily deduce the years of our youth, but would have no way of knowing which songs were our favorites.

Happy reading this today. I am a RN who used music as a tool in getting patients who did nothing to interact. I marveled how a person with no memory could sing all the lyrics of a song and also tell me who sang it. Sometimes I would hum part of a song and question its name, then they would sing it with me.
Music is in everyone. For me it gives so much. I can lose myself in it. I always said the piano was my best friend. It understood and felt my different moods. I could begin playing when upset, but as I sat and played it washed away leaving me in a much better place. Yes, I truly believe in ALIVE INSIDE!

One of the best posts I have read on this blog and every other blog I follow. Because it's about noticing and caring, and meeting people where they are, and using technology in imaginative, low-cost, commonsense, life restoring ways. Thank you, Ronni.

I wrote about this once before so please forgive me for repeating, but it is timely and is my personal experience with music and elders.

I have a dear childhood friend who had to place her beloved mother in a private nursing home due to dementia.

When I was in High School I used to visit them often and the mother always asked me to play the piano for her.

Back to the nursing home. One year I was visiting my friend and she asked me to play for her mother. They wheeled her in and I introduced myself to her. She didn't know who I was and sometimes didn't recognize her daughter. When I started playing her old favorites she came alive just like Henry and started singing the lyrics to the old songs. Her smile was beautiful to behold.

Another time I volunteered at a nursing home by playing the piano for the lunch hour. I got the same response because I knew the old songs and played them. One woman sticks in my mind. She would come in with a sour look on her face and didn't interact with anyone. When I started playing a lively tune she started jumping up and down in her chair in time with the beat. Best of all, she smiled. It was very rewarding.

I had not heard of this before, but I do know how important music was to my mother in her dementia years.

In my career as a speech pathologist, I used MIT, or Melodic Intonation Therapy to help stroke and head injured patients regain their speech. Common phrases (like "cup of coffee") were sing-songed and this was paired with the patient tapping their fingers on the table to the beat of the words. Another part of the brain is engaged. Maybe why stutterers never stutter while singing as well.

The last job I held was directing an adult day program for frail elders. About half had been diagnosed with dementia.

Over the first few years I was there I amassed a collection of CDs from the 1940s, especially big band music. We did our morning exercises to Benny Goodman, the Dorsey brothers and Artie Shaw.We had people who hadn't spoken for months or years, singing along with Doris Day, Jo Stafford, et al. It was astounding.

The music connection changed the lives of our clients and their families, and became a vital part of the program.

I'm so glad to see this happening!

I saw this movie at the Seattle International Film Festival. Terrific!!!

Yes, creating your own playlist is a good idea. No Herman's Hermits for me!

iPod Shuffles deliver the music, so, in my case, I could end up hearing an aria from Madame Butterfly followed by Aretha singing "Respect." Could be unsettling, but maybe if I were incapacitated, I would just be grateful for ANY familiar music. This "treatment" also appears to help people with a variety of brain injuries.

Go see the movie! And then start lobbying your local nursing homes. Medicare will pay for antipsychotics (chemical restraints) but not for this "treatment." Therefore, nursing homes will need to be willing to use donated iPod shuffles and let their staff be trained.

My dear husband, who left us 2 years ago, had dementia for at least 10 years. He had loved Music with a passion and knew
a tremendous amount about it. We subscribed to the NY Philharmonic for 35 plus years and also went to every Jazz event going.
He lost the power of speech and , we thought, hearing. My musician daughter brought all her sheet music and played it at the Veteran's Home. What a revelation! He smiled--kept the beat and once in a while a tear rolled down his cheek. He reached for my hand and together we recalled all the shows, musicals, and concerts we had so enjoyed together. Such precious moments!

What a great idea to create your own list. Music was my life when I was younger but very few people who know me now would have any idea what I listened to back then. And how important to have access to your own, personal choices. My son spent some time working in a nursing home where the residents where wheeled into a common room and left to listen to an endless loop of the kind of music that would, to me, be hell on earth.

Wonderful idea and I can't wait to see the movie when it comes to my city. Both my mother and mother-in-law loved music and would have benefited so much from having their personal favorites on an iPod. So sad I never thought of doing that for either one of them.

Beautiful piece.

What a great idea of creating the musical soundtrack of your life.

This could become a fun job for a retiree.

Personalizing song lists for seniors.

Take it a step further by putting the songs on custom styled thumb drives.

Example, you are a writer, your thumb drive is an old fashioned typewriter.

You are a basketball fan, your thumb drive is a basketball.

You are an Archie comic fan, your thumb drive is Veronica.

Add a custom lariat to hold your personalized song collection on your one of a kind thumb drive.

Non-linear thinking jumps over barriers.

For ten years, playing my Awesome Arranger Keyboard for Nursing Home residents ranks among the greatest joys of my life!

To see those wonderful people light up and smile when I came to play for them every
Friday, was great. To hear them sing-a-long to many of the tunes they heard, was
frosting on my cake.

One of my favorite people there was Natalie, a totally
blind lady who had been a professional clarinetist. I would ask her what instruments she would like to hear for a specific song and
what rhythm as well. Together we created some great orchestrations.

Now I play that same keyboard at an RV park I live. We have "Happy Social Hour" every afternoon. It is my great pleasure to share my music with my RV family five days each week.

One of the best things I have ever done for myself is to learn how to play music on my own and share my music with others...

My mother donated our piano to the home where my father, who had severe Alzheimer's lived. Although he couldn't remember where he was, or who my mother was, he played that piano every day for the other residents. It gave joy to him and everyone else who resided there.

I discovered that singing quieted an agitated man who was deep into dementia. I don't have a great (or even passable) voice, but he took note when I sang "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" to him - a song that my beloved father-in-law had loved to sing around the house.

When I was taking care of my mother-in-law Genny during the last two years of her life, due to her dementia, I tried so many things to reach her, to keep her calm and comfortable, and to try to make her happy. In their nearly 65 years together, she and her husband had been devotees of the Lawrence Welk show. One evening, when I was flipping through channels and Genny was sleeping on the sofa, I came across that show on a public television station. I was curious how she might respond and turned up the volume a bit. As soon as Genny heard it, she lifted her head from the pillow for a moment and said, "Oh I like that." She was mostly uncommunicative by that time, so I was very surprised and hoped that this was going to be some kind of breakthrough, but there were only those three words. I used the DVR to accumulate a collection of a few episodes, and they were very helpful over the last few months of her life, though she never responded again like she had that first time.

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