Music has been a part of human life since the very beginning. We have beautiful hymns, chants, and classical masterpieces created over the course of human history. It is a connection to all life – from the rhythmic sounds of nature to our mother’s heartbeat. It’s playing in the background as we shop, it’s available in our cars, on our phones and used to advertise a variety of products and services. We select our favorite songs to play at our weddings and funerals. It can take us back to a time when we were happiest; to a time before an illness.
When you are ill or a loved one is living with a chronic condition, you lose the ability to control all the circumstances. Fear, anxiety and unknown variables diminish the ability to function as you once did when the illness or condition was absent. We are constantly hearing sounds around us. Why not make sounds that bring peace and happiness to someone in pain or living with dementia or Alzheimer’s?
It happens to everyone; we hear a favorite song from our childhood or our teenage years and immediately we have an emotional reaction. It perks us up; we start to sing along or move to the beat. We see in our mind's eye that place or time and feel the emotions connected to that memory. Music intervention is easy to incorporate into a caregiving plan.
There have been numerous scientific studies on music and memory to determine if music therapy is an effective treatment for those living with dementia. A non-profit organization, Music and Memory (http://musicandmemory.org/), promotes the health benefits associated with music.
Music and Memory founder and social worker Dan Cohen said in a 2012 interview with A Place for Mom Senior Living blog, “Music actually brings back functions of the brain. It offers a ‘back door’ of memory retrieval that is seemingly lost. In fact, while hearing and talking components are located in specific places in the brain, music is located throughout the brain. So often music remains preserved, even if parts of the brain are lost through dementia. And music from our youth is deeply embedded in our neural-network, and it’s cumulative over time. So if people listen to music for three hours a week over a 10-month period, many of their cognitive test scores actually improve,” according to a New York State Department of Health Dementia Grant program study.
Cohen went on to say, “If a drug became available that could do this, it would quickly be a multibillion dollar blockbuster and everyone who has a family member with Alzheimer’s would be asking for it.”
The documentary film Alive Inside by Michael Rossato-Bennett follows Cohen as he creates personalized iPod playlists for people in elder care communities, hoping to reconnect them with the music they love. Individuals who are normally non-verbal or withdrawn start to “come alive” after listening to their favorite songs and are able to talk clearly and discuss the music they just heard.
The organization trains nursing home staff and other elder care professionals as well as family caregivers on how to create and provide personalized playlists.
Here’s a list of Cohen’s tips on using music for those with dementia or Alzheimer’s (or anyone wanting to utilize music in their caregiving):
Get the playlist right. Find out the individual’s tastes and create a varied mix of songs: no more than five to seven songs per artist. Weed out tracks that are so-so, so you end up with 100 or 200 songs that all resonate.
Keep it simple. Make sure the device to listen to music on is easy to use, or that someone nearby can help. Over-ear headphones often work better than earbuds, which can fall out.
Be patient. It can take time to reach the music memory. If the person is responding, feel free to sing along. If someone doesn't like the headphones, try a small speaker at first and incorporate the headphones gradually over time.
Make it special. Don't leave the player on all the time. Some find it works well during transitions: If someone is hesitant to take a bath or eat or get dressed, music may help move things along.
Erin Berge is the Regional Marketing Director for Volunteers of America, a national, faith-based, non-profit organization that provides a network of health care programs, housing and supportive services in Montrose and Delta Counties (voaseniorliving.org or 1-844-862-4968).
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