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Music and memory: turning the lights back on for those with Alzheimer’s

Ever heard a piece of music that takes you back in time? Music that makes your spine tingle or the hairs on the back of your arms stand up? Within the first few bars of the song, you remember and even feel that special moment: when you first fell in love, the sense of freedom when you travelled overseas or a special weekend away with friends. Or perhaps you can recall a painful, distressing memory that reduces you to tears.

Music can be an overwhelmingly visceral experience. It connects to something deep within us. It moves and excites us. Now, researchers can tell us this is because our brains are hardwired to connect music with long-term memory. And the good news is that for those suffering cognitive impairment such as dementia or Alzheimer’s, music therapy can tap into deep emotional recall, giving profoundly uplifting results.

For so many suffering dementia, the sense of isolation experienced is overwhelming. As mind and memory slowly fade away, communication becomes harder, life is more frustrating, and consequently a dementia sufferer’s anxiety and distress increases. Like a light slowly dimming to a faint glow, they fade away, retreating further inside.

For loved ones, this process is extremely difficult to watch. The parent, sibling or spouse is no longer “there” anymore. Sometimes it feels like Alzheimer’s takes the person as they once were away.

In the US, a relatively new program of music therapy has been introduced that gives hope to those suffering cognitive challenges. MUSIC & MEMORY is an organisation that creates personalised digital music playlists for the cognitively impaired to help reconnect them with the world through music-triggered memories.

The music and memory program was started by Dan Levi with a simple idea, mostly fuelled by his personal desire to have access to music if he were ever in a nursing home. He wanted to provide the elderly in residential care with iPods so they could listen to their favourite tunes. Over time, the program took off – in a big way. It’s been a huge hit with residents, their families, and staff.

In 2012, a documentary was released detailing the work, Alive Inside: a Story of Music and Memory. The clip below is an excerpt from the program.

Excerpt from the documentary, Alive Inside. Watch Henry, a long-term resident with Alzheimer’s, undergo a powerfully touching transformation through music.

Alzheimer’s research has discovered that music, even when much of the brain is gone, can bring it back to life. According to the late Oliver Sacks, MD, noted neurologist and bestselling author of Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, who is interviewed in the Alive Inside documentary, dementia patients are often confused, agitated and lethargic. However, all, almost without exception, respond to music.

Music therapy seems to reach an individual’s memories and emotions that are otherwise completely inaccessible. Sacks noted that as soon as a resident began listening to their favourite musical tracks, their faces would light up, they would smile, perhaps start to tap their feet and relive that time of their lives, while reconnecting with that identity. Even better, the effects of music and memory can last for hours afterwards.

“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, MD

Sacks’ explanation helps us to put the Alzheimer’s patients’ memory loss in context. Their personal autobiography goes missing. Understandably, this is a devastating experience because effectively, with memory and identity gone, they have lost their past life.

But with music, memories come flooding back. Through music therapy, the past, which is not recoverable in any other way, finally returns.

Turning the lights on for people with Alxheimers - Sage Institute of Aged Care

Even for those with advanced dementia where most of their memory and even language has gone, music will be the one thing that will reconnect them to the past. Sacks indicates that this is because music affects parts of the brain that sit very closely to memory and also emotion and mood.

MUSIC & MEMORY started in the US but music therapy for dementia has taken off throughout Canada, Europe and now, Australia. Alive Inside was screened at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival to enthusiastic reviews and has won many awards for documentaries, along with a huge outpouring of interest in the music and memory project internationally. The founders hope that personalised music will soon be recognised as a gold standard of long-term care and dementia therapy everywhere.

Sage Institute of Aged Care – is more than a job, it’s a rewarding career.

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan is the Academic Director at Sage Institute of Education. She oversees learning processes, teaching outcomes, resources and course development. A passionate advocate for bettering standards of training in Australia, she is currently writing her PhD thesis on defining quality training in the Australian vocational education sector.
Vicki Tuchtan

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