Indeed, music serves an essential purpose, besides greatly enriching our lives culturally, and greatly enriching the bank accounts of pop stars. Music therapy for a senior can help reduce post-surgical pain, relieve stress and anxiety, and stimulate children with developmental delays, among many other health interventions.
Perhaps most exciting of all for those who have a loved one with memory loss, music therapy can help reconnect them with themselves, by activating long-dormant memories of the music they’ve loved throughout their life. Music therapy enables a senior with cognitive deficits to again engage with others and the world around them.
“Without music, life would be a mistake,” wrote philosopher and poet Friedrich Nietzsche. Albert Einstein agreed: “If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.”
Neurologist Oliver Sacks, who wrote the best-selling book Awakenings as well as Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, observed, “Music is an essential part of being human. There is no human culture in which it is not highly developed and esteemed.”
How Music Therapy Helps Activate Senior Memory
People with dementia lose their forebrain; what a senior is left with is the deeper emotional systems, explains Michael Rossato-Bennett, who wrote, directed and produced the award-winning documentary, Alive Inside.
“They’re still emotionally alive inside. Their heart remembers. Music is this channel that allows us to dive into our emotional beings. It exists in our DNA, but it’s put together by using all of our brain.”
The feature film will bring tears to a viewer’s eyes as older adults, some of whom have been uncommunicative for years, light up with recognition and joy when music stimulates memories.
One stunning example is 94-year-old Henry, who is legally blind and had been unresponsive for a decade, simply sitting in his wheelchair day after day. When nursing home staff put headphones connected to an iPod filled with songs from his youth on his ears, he became animated, talking, singing, and reciting poetry. This man, who had been inert, said joyously, “Music gives me the feeling of love! I feel a band of love, dreams.”
Personalized Playlists: Powerful Memory Allies
The efficacy of music for rekindling memory has developed a global reach. In Scotland, Sally Magnusson, author of Where Memories Go: Why Dementia Changes Everything, learned about the healing power of music during the course of her research. While the discovery came too late for Magnusson to help improve her own mother’s memory, she was galvanized to help others.
She founded Playlist for Life in 2013 to help those caring for dementia patients create “the soundtrack to their life.” So far, the charity has trained more than 4,600 health care providers in how to use music playlists to help people with memory loss re-engage.
To create a personalized music playlist, Playlist for Life recommends the following steps:
- Find the top songs from their youth. Many milestone memories are anchored between the ages of 10 and 30. Playlist for Life even created a list of the most popular songs of the last century to assist caregivers and family members in finding appropriate selections.
- Add “inheritance tracks”. These are songs associated with special childhood memories, such as a first date with the man or woman your loved one later married, or something your senior relative played all the time at home.
- Add “identity” tracks”. Identity tracks connect us with our heritage, nationality, and ethnicity. They may be songs that were sung at church or temple, or during holiday celebrations, for example. Identity tracks may also include songs someone learned from a grandparent or great aunt who came to America from “the old country”.
Because music therapy so greatly benefits a senior with memory loss, an iPod playing a memory care resident’s favorite songs may also be helpful at mealtimes, enabling him or her to remain calm and focus on the meal. Or, if a resident is highly distractible and tends to want to walk around at mealtime, the solution might be to make her meal portable by placing it in a take-out container or ice cream waffle bowl. Ingenuity is the watchword in memory care, and music is a key resource.
Singing Builds Social Support, Decreases Loneliness
Music therapy can take the form of singing, not necessarily along with a playlist, but as part of a choir. In recently published results of a six-year study, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco School of Nursing, reported that participating in a community choir “may be a unique approach to promote the health of diverse older adults by helping them remain active and engaged. It may even reduce health disparities.”
In the randomized trial — the largest of its kind — UCSF tracked almost 400 culturally diverse adults age 60 and older from a dozen San Francisco senior centers. Researchers assessed participants’ cognition, physical function, and psychosocial function, as well as their use and cost of healthcare services, before they started the choir program, and again after six and 12 months.
The study showed “reduced feelings of loneliness and increased interest in life,” though cognitive and physical outcomes didn’t change significantly. Still, staying active and engaged, especially through the medium of music, can only have positive results in terms of health and wellness.
Perhaps that’s why a Japanese “granny” band, whose members’ average age is 84, is taking the long-lived population by storm. Proving that music is an elixir, KBG48 attributes its high energy to what the Japanese refer to as “ikigai”: a sense of life.
The group of energetic senior singers is living what the San Francisco study confirmed: joining a choir that meets for regular rehearsals, and ideally performs, even if just for the local community, can create a renewed feeling of purpose and ignite the passion an elder may have misplaced after retirement.
Sounding the Right Notes
At The Kensington Falls Church, we recognize the value of music in triggering memories that can comfort and uplift our residents. We encourage family members to share music or movies relevant to your loved one’s era and preferences.
Afterwards, you can discuss the selections you listened to, and the recollections they inspire. It’s a heartwarming way to draw closer to your loved one and enrich their life experience.