Music awakens memories in those with dementia

The Music & Memory program Image courtesy of the Arts Health Institute

This article first appeared on SBS Life on January 11, 2016.

Precious moments of connection can be rare for those who have loved ones with late stage dementia. The Music & Memory program introduced to Australia last November may help overcome this.

The Music & Memory program, developed by US social worker Dan Cohen, was the subject of the heartwarming 2014 documentary Alive Inside. The film chronicled Cohen’s work with the program, which involves the creation of personalised playlists on iPods played on headphones to those with dementia and other chronic cognitive and physical impairments.

The program, which is in place across hundreds of aged care facilities in the US and Canada was, with Cohen’s support, brought to Australia via the Arts Health Institute (AHI), a non-profit organisation that brings arts programs to healthcare. There are currently eight accredited facilities in NSW and the ACT, though CEO Dr Maggie Haertsch hopes to see the program adopted by many more facilities nationally.

Haertsch says the program can be “transformative” for participants and their families. The music awakens a part of the brain not impacted by dementia and evokes responses, such as singing and movement, and brief moments of reconnection with loved ones.

This from Alive Inside, features Henry, a usually inert man with dementia, who, after listening to his favourite music, managed to sing and speak.

It was this footage that captured the attention of Haertsch.

“When I saw it, I thought it was quite extraordinary, something as simple and elegant as a person’s playlist being played to them through an iPod. It was just so easy to do. Why shouldn’t we be doing this?”

Since the rollout of the Music & Memory program here in Australia, Haertsch is upbeat about the results in participants.

“Anecdotally we have observed changes in mood that can last several hours and alertness immediately following [a listening session] can generally last around 20 minutes, but everyone is different and responds differently.”

She cites the story of a man, let’s call him Tony. He had quite advanced dementia and was cared for by his wife at home.

“Music was a really big part of their lives, they met doing dancing together in the fifties. They would meet at the local town hall, that’s how their courting started. In fact, his wife had never danced with anyone else since meeting her husband – and that was 58 years ago.”

Tony is a man with a peaceful temperament. When Haertsch and a community care provider visited Tony last December, they played him Rock Around The Clock by Bill Haley and His Comets – a song he and his wife used to dance to.

Tony at the time was sitting at the kitchen table, with his wife, colouring in. When he heard the music, “his feet would not stop jigging under the table,” recounts Haertsch. “His body was moving in time with the music! He was back there – at the town hall, back in the fifties, with his wife dancing. He could not stop laughing; his wife could not stop crying.”

This type of response is not uncommon, with the program predominantly delivering positive outcomes. Sometimes there are tears; however these tears are often of joy or recognition.

On rare occasions there are negative reactions, but Haertsch says, “it might be because we haven’t found the right music for them yet”.

Indeed finding the right type of music is central to the success of the program, which is personalised to individual music tastes. Training is provided through regular webinars and occasional site visits and is complemented by an online forum and special mini conferences. This helps staff, carers and volunteers identify the right type of music (family help play a key role in this); observe and understand the participants’ responses (including those who are non-verbal) to the music; create and refine playlists; and understand when and how they should be played. Service providers are encouraged to give participants’ access to the music 24/7 based on when they want or need it.

Music-led therapies have been found to benefit both participants and carers. A 2015 study by the Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge on the impact of music therapy to dementia patients found it improved participants’ dementia symptoms and general wellbeing, while also leading to a decline in occupational disruptiveness to staff.

While a 2012 survey conducted by the US Music & Memory organisation based on qualitative assessments by staff of accredited facilities found 71 per cent believed the program helped many residents suffering from anxiety.

Allity RedLeaf Manor Aged Care in the Sydney suburb of Concord implemented the Music & Memory program in December, 2015. Erin Sharp, its GM, says she was surprised at the immediacy of the results, particularly with one resident who “had become removed from society” and whose conversations were generally garbled.

Sharp says, “With the headphones on she started singing, she knew all the words to Jerusalem off by heart! She started to recall the memories of that particular song and then had this really normal conversation with her husband and her children who were there. They were stunned and overwhelmed by what they saw.”