Music Therapy For Dementia: Awakening Memories in Alzheimer’s Patients

The past, which is not recoverable in any other way, is embedded, as if in amber, in the music, and people can regain a sense of identity…   — Oliver Sacks, M.D.Music Therapy for Dementia

We’ve all heard (and many of us have seen) the miraculous effect music can have on Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. In 2012, the world met Henry via a YouTube video that went viral immediately upon its release. Henry had suffered from dementia for a decade, was very withdrawn, and spent most of his time alone in his wheelchair, unable to communicate…

Until he was given an iPod loaded with music from his era. Suddenly, the man who barely spoke was able sing his favorite Cab Calloway songs. He literally came to life, reminiscing about how much he had loved music and dancing in his younger years. It’s an incredibly compelling video.

The Music & Memory Program

That clip is part of a documentary on the Music & Memory Program, a non-profit organization whose mission is to bring personalized, digital music to the elderly and others who are ailing. Their goal is simple: “vastly improving quality of life” for these patients. Thus far, the program has provided iPods to over 140 care facilities in the U.S. and Canada.

The organization also educates elder care professionals and family caregivers on how to create powerful personalized playlists to help Alzheimer’s and dementia patients reconnect with memories triggered by music. Dr. Laura Mosqueda, Director of Geriatrics at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine, explains that because music affects so many parts of the brain, it touches areas that may not be damaged by the disease and brings those pathways to the forefront. The result is the astounding “awakening” that often occurs.

Seeing Is Believing

Testimonials really tell the story. A caregiver from Valley Stream, New York, said, “Patients with anxiety and depression are less agitated and appear calmer. The music transports them to a happier place in their minds.”

Another reported, “One gentleman who had a diagnosis of failure to thrive actually gained weight and began taking an interest in the world after he started using the device.”

Overall, care facilities report that residents are happier, more engaged, and much calmer with the use of music therapy. They note that staff members are able to create more meaningful relationships with patients, spending less time dealing with behavioral issues. Perhaps most encouraging, some facilities are actually seeing a reduction in the need for psychotropic drugs, which carry with them a set of problems all their own.

You Can Help!

Country music superstar Kenny Chesney recently recorded a PSA asking fans to consider donating an MP3 player or making a monetary contribution to support this important work. For information on donating a gently used iPod or similar device, click the iPod Donations button from the Music & Memory home page. They make the process simple – you can even download a prepaid mailing label!

Perhaps Tony Lewis, President and CEO of Cobble Hill Health Care in Brooklyn, said it best, “Despite the enormous sums of money spent on mood and behavior altering medications that are often not particularly effective, nothing compares to these iPods when it comes to improving quality of life.”

If you’re interested in locating a certified Music & Memory care facility in your area, visit the website’s Care Facility Partners page.

We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences regarding music therapy for dementia patients. Leave a comment to share your stories.

Please leave your thoughts and comments

  • lesa

    My Dad recently diagnosed goes to a day class.Some days a volunteer band will come and play the good old 40’s..the smile is priceless from not just my Dad but all the men. I encourage everyone to let your loved one listen to some music. You may be surprised and enjoy it too.

  • Barbara Verley

    For almost a year, I have been working with an assisted living center which has both life guidance and Alzheimer’s patients. I made binders with lyrics to almost 50 songs – about half are Patriotic while the other half are mostly from the ’40s. I play songs from YouTube through my laptop with an external speaker. IT IS AMAZING how the Alzheimer’s patients do not even look at the lyrics – because THEY REMEMBER THE WORDS!!! They begin to sit taller; their feet begin tapping; their hands are patting their laps, and they are engaged in the 45 minutes to an hour we are together! As they are entering and leaving, I play instrumental music by Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw et al, and you should see them “dancing” as they come in the room! I ALWAYS gain more inspiration from them than they could ever gain from me. Tremendous, tremendous folks! =)

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