Can Music Open Pathways to the Minds of Kentucky Alzheimer’s Patients?

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For most of us in Kentucky, music has played an important role in our lives. When we were children, we heard nursery rhymes and lullabies. As teenagers, the music of certain artists resonated with us as we went through tough times with our parents and lived the highs and lows of school and romance. As adults, we often have music on in the background as we work, do housework, and drive from one errand to the next. 

It should be no surprise, then, to discover that music has the ability to reach us when we seem trapped inside ourselves due to Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

Music Hath Charms…

A video called “Alive Inside” showed up on YouTube several months ago. In the video, a social worker approached an elderly man in a nursing home and tried to talk to him; the man was almost completely unresponsive. Then the social worker put headphones on the man and started playing music on an iPod and observed his reaction. 

The transformation in the man was nothing short of remarkable. He started tapping his feet and moving to the music. His head lifted, eyes grew wide and lively, and his face lit up. He began singing along. When the social worker removed the headphones and started asking the man questions about the music, he didn’t merely grunt or nod; he responded passionately and coherently about the music and how it made him feel.

Music & Memory

Dan Cohen, the social worker in the video, is the executive director of Music & Memory, an organization that delivers iPods with personalized music to elderly, infirm individuals in a variety of settings. According to Cohen, the aims of the iPod project are “to support the initiation of iPod-based personalized music programs regardless of one’s location (e.g., at home; in a nursing home, assisted living facility, hospital, or hospice) and raise public awareness about the benefits of keeping engaged with a rich personal music environment regardless of physical, cognitive, or social condition.”

The Theory

Research indicates that our brains are “hard wired” to connect music with long-term memory. By loading up iPods with music that people grew up with or that they particularly enjoy, that long-term memory can be awakened. As stated on the Music & Memory website, “Beloved music often calms chaotic brain activity and enables the listener to focus on the present moment and regain a connection to others.”

The implications for these findings are exciting. Perhaps music is the key that can open long-locked doors to the memories and personalities of people suffering from dementia, thereby enriching their lives and bringing them back to the people who love them. 

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