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The music and memory connection
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The music and memory connection

MetroWest CARES — the Committee Addressing Resources for Seniors — is coordinated by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest and brings together leaders from Greater MetroWest agencies to promote independence and support vitality among older adults. Each month, a MetroWest CARES agency has an opportunity to address a critical eldercare issue. This month’s column on how music can enrich the lives of individuals with memory loss is presented by Daughters of Israel. Daughters of Israel is a skilled nursing and residential care facility offering long-term care, short-term rehabilitation for sub-acute care, memory care, hospice/palliative care, respite stays, and living with assistance.

I think music in itself is healing. It’s an explosive expression of humanity. It’s something “we are all touched by,” according to songwriter and musician Billy Joel. Some have called music “the medicine of the mind” while others deem it a “healing art.”

Music can be therapeutic in a number of ways. Research has found that music boosts the immune system, eases muscle tension, effects positive changes in mood, reduces depression, and enables memory. Many of us are flooded with memories when we hear familiar music: synagogue melodies of our youth, music we listened to as teens, and the songs we sang to our children when they were babies. Recent research indicates that the use of music can be particularly beneficial to individuals with memory loss.

Language and words are stored on one side of the brain and tune and melody are stored on the other. This means that when individuals enjoy music they are activating both sides of the brain and they are working together. Interestingly, pathways in the brain responsible for processing and producing music, rhythm, and singing remain intact long after an individual’s capacity for language is processed.

According to the Music & Memory organization, “Music is profoundly linked to personal memories. In fact, 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. Persons with dementia, Parkinson’s, and other diseases that damage brain chemistry also reconnect to the world and gain improved quality of life from listening to personal music favorites.”

Daughters of Israel is at the forefront of utilizing music as a therapeutic treatment, being the first skilled nursing facility state-wide to introduce the innovative Music and Memory program geared towards residents with dementia. Made possible through a very generous grant from The Laurie Foundation, Daughters was able to purchase iPods, music playlists, a dedicated laptop, and training for Daughters staff members. Initially rolled out as a pilot program, there are now 25 participants benefitting from this unique program, in which residents are equipped with iPods uploaded with highly personalized music playlists. “The Music & Memory program…has significantly enhanced the quality of life for those residents who have been participating in the program,” said Susan Grosser, executive director at Daughters of Israel. “In fact, it has been so successful that we plan to gradually roll out Music & Memory to all of our residents throughout the Home.”

Personalized music has proven to have many benefits including temporarily but repeatedly restoring a sense of self, awakening long-lost memories, providing avenues for genuine communication with loved ones and caregivers, and fostering a tranquil environment. Family caregivers can utilize personalize music selections from genres that their loved ones enjoy, such as Broadway musicals or Big Band tunes, to create a more calming atmosphere.  The use of personalized music can also be a successful tool for communicating with a loved one even after speech has been affected.

Janet Been, director of the Special Care Unit at Daughters of Israel, has seen the success of the program firsthand. “We have residents with mid-stage dementia, who will barely participate in a conversation. However, once the music is turned on, whether it’s a Sinatra tune or klezmer music, they are able to recall all of the words and sing along. It’s also wonderful to see their facial expression change so quickly, as the music quickly puts a smile on their faces, and gradually diminishes the agitation they were experiencing.”

Music is a powerful tool that should not be underestimated, especially when it comes to its effect on memory.

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