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
You’re cruising along the highway when a particular song on the radio releases a flood of vivid memories—long ago events, people you hadn’t thought about in years, even associated emotions. What is a quotidian and generally pleasant experience for most of us is a window back into the world for individuals with Alzheimer’s and other forms of memory loss.
Tempo and Rhythm Stimulate the Brain
Music stimulates not only auditory functions but a broad range of our brain’s networks, especially undamaged but otherwise inaccessible parts of the brain. Tempo calls on the cerebellum and cerebrum, our motor managers. Rhythm also stimulates the limbic areas of the brain, the center of our emotions, as does musical tone.
Just as learning to play a musical instrument at an early age transforms the brain’s structure, so too does music affect the brain’s neuro circuits at any age. Neuroscientists explain that “music-evoked autobiographical memories” (MEAMs) have great potential to enhance the quality of life of Alzheimer’s patients. In fact, musical appreciation is one of the last capabilities to fade.
Musical Preferences by Personality
Individuals with memory impairment benefit from what has been pleasurable in their earlier lives—especially hearing their favorite music. Not only is music an effective and soothing distraction at moments of distress or frustration, but also it becomes an important means for patients to reconnect with their world. Especially in later stages, when patients can no longer experience empathy, music stimulates emotional connection.
Spotify conducted research that indicates musical tastes alter as people age but, by age thirty-three, most listening habits are well-established and relatively immutable, and, not surprisingly, neuroscientists have found that older adults prefer this music of their younger years. This research suggests that a classically trained musician may respond to Mozart while another person of the same generation may prefer the strong bass and nails-on-a-blackboard voice of Iggy Pop. But both may respond to tunes from their earliest childhood.
“By getting to know the preferences and unique personality of each memory care patient, we can create medleys and playlists for each,” says Judi Cleary, Executive Director of Branchlands.
Music & MemorySM Certification
As part of its personalized approach to care of memory-impaired individuals, Linden House Assisted Living at Branchlands has adopted the Music & Memory program. Before a patient is admitted, Linden House staff conducts detailed interviews with family members and caregivers to learn about background, interests, daily routines, nutritional needs and preferences, and many other similar and important dimensions of a person’s life before coming to Branchlands.
The resulting care plan will include, among many other important details, guidelines that assist staff in creating a personalized playlist. This music and other musical programs are integrated into a daily care plan focused on engaging, calming, and even delighting the memory-impaired.
The Stories Family Tell
Memory loss is devastating, and especially at later stages when patients lose significant cognitive function, families grieve the loss of emotional connection. Music has the power to reanimate the personality and the ability to feel and give affection.
George’s mother was at the point where she did not recognize her grandchildren. But she had always loved musicals. “When we played the music from South Pacific,” George recalls, “she would always smile and tap her feet. What was most amazing, though, was that, after the iPOD was removed, she would look up at me and call me by my name, something she hadn’t done in months.” His sister adds, “You can’t imagine how important the memory of that moment was to us. For brief moments, we would have our mother back, and it was music that brought her to us.”