Music Can Unlock Memories

The 2014 documentary Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory, available on Netflix and for purchase on Amazon, follows social worker Dan Cohen as he uses music to unlock memory in nursing-home patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

In many parts of the film, we see how the expressions of patients change from neutral to happily animated as they listen to music. His pioneering efforts have led to the placement of personal music players in many nursing homes around the country.

While the documentary is fairly recent, “music therapy” as a specifically-defined health profession has been a reimbursable service under Medicare since 1994. The website of the American Music Therapy Association says it’s “an established health profession in which music is used within a therapeutic relationship to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals.”

There’s no musical talent needed to benefit from this type of therapy; the person just needs to like music. (Fortunately, this is a really low bar—studies have shown that music is at least somewhat important to more than 90% of the population.)

In addition to helping achieve the person’s clinical goals, music therapy also allows them (if they are so inclined) to create a musical gift as a legacy for their family. We know of one man who changed the words to “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and made CDs so that his grandchildren could hear his voice and his message of love after he was gone. Another man, who loved his family dearly but had trouble saying the words, was able to do so in song; his recording was played at his funeral.

Here are tips for caregivers who want to provide a safe and beneficial music experience for their loved ones with Alzheimer’s or dementia:

  • Create a space that is conducive to promoting relaxation and attention.

  • Play music (live or recorded) from the person’s teenage years and early 20s, as that’s when most musical memories are formed.

  • Watch for negative physical responses—music can be overstimulating or trigger bad memories.

  • Be aware of the volume of the music and match it to your loved one’s needs.

  • If the person loves nature, recordings with nature sounds can be beneficial.

  • Encourage reminiscing and sharing of memories, and leave space to listen.

In his book Musicophilia, the late neurologist and author Oliver Sacks explained the deep reach of music therapy for individuals with problems such as Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias: “While music can affect all of us—calm us, animate us, comfort us, thrill us, or serve to organize and synchronize us at work or play—it may be especially powerful and have great therapeutic potential for patients with a variety of neurological conditions. Such people may respond powerfully and specifically to music (and, sometimes, to little else).”

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