Restoring Hope: Supporting Memory Care Patients with the Gift of Music

Music is the universal language. For people with memory issues, it’s often a gift beyond words.

Millions of aging Americans in senior care communities are living with memory challenges. Despite the best efforts of caretakers and loved ones, the lives of those with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (ADRD) often lack connection. An innovation called Music & Memory™, launched in 2006 by Dan Cohen, helps people who suffer from a wide range of cognitive and physical limitations to reawaken memories – and feelings – through the gift of personalized music. The program gained universal recognition with the award-winning documentary, “Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory,” which debuted in 2014 at the Sundance Film Festival.

Tracking the research

“Music & Memory is based on studies that highlight the therapeutic effects of personalized music,” says Callie Whitwell, chief operating officer and founding partner of Lifetime Wellness. Her company – one of the first programs in Texas to be awarded a grant for Music & Memory – has partnered with StoneGate Senior Living, a leading provider of senior living services in Texas, Colorado, and Oklahoma, to offer Music & Memory in most of StoneGate’s 43 communities. “Research has found that music can penetrate parts of the brain less affected by ADRD. In awakening deep memories, the music helps listeners to reconnect with themselves, their loved ones, and their environment. Many residents with ADRD become less agitated or despondent and more animated and involved.” 

Taking a different view  

About 70 percent of residents with ADRD living in nursing facilities are reported to have significant behavioral and psychiatric symptoms. Historically, the first treatment was antipsychotic drugs. The Music & Memory program offers a different view.

A recent study from Brown University found that people with dementia who participated in the Music & Memory program were more likely to stop using antipsychotic and anti-anxiety drugs and engaged in fewer problematic behaviors. A similar study is underway in California. 

Tuning in staff members

Music & Memory supports not only residents and their families but also care professionals. “The benefits to staff members are many,” Whitwell notes. “The program keeps staff tuned into the life story of each resident served so that they can provide more personalized care. Caregivers also regain time previously lost to behavior management issues – along with a promising approach in their effort to reduce reliance on antipsychotic medications.”

Texas Health and Human Services is also conducting studies on how these program protocols can increase staff retention and satisfaction. Industry observers believe widespread use of Music & Memory can help deter staff burnout and high employee turnover rates – at an average of 42 percent – that continue to undermine the senior living industry.

Transforming lives

Susan McKinney, vice president of operations at Lifetime Wellness, describes how the program works. ”Staff consult with each resident and the resident’s family to create a personalized playlist, delivered on iPods and other digital devices. Favorite songs are often culled from the resident’s youth – or may span all chapters of their life. We’ve seen many residents, headphones on, start to smile and talk again. Some hum, sing along, sway, and even dance. The result? Memories triggered. Connections renewed. Quality of life improved.”

McKinney offers the story of a woman who participated in the Music and Memory program at a StoneGate community – and realized dramatic results. “She has limited psychomotor skills, and dementia limits her ability to communicate,” McKinney says. “Her playlists are composed of classic hits from the 1970s, from Gloria Gaynor to The Trammps. Her husband summed up her turnaround this way: ‘My wife perks up when she’s listening to her tunes. The music brings back something that I can’t explain. Any smile or reaction I see in her lets me know that she is still with me.’”

Thanking the community

StoneGate is currently holding a community drive to support the Music & Memory program. Through July 20, community donations can be made at eight participating locations. Contributions of new and used devices, iTunes gift cards, and cash donations will help expand the program. “We’d love to provide each resident with a personal device loaded with their favorite music – and spread the contributions to our fellow neighbors who also offer the Music & Memory program,” Whitwell says. “It’s a simple and economical way to reach people with dementia who so often seem beyond reach. Your donation to the program will truly be the gift that keeps on giving.”