Written by Richard Yusim
There is no pill to alleviate symptoms of dementia. But what if there was something that could reduce the likelihood of falling, add joy and stimulate communication and memory in our loved ones with dementia? Listening to personalized music playlists can help with these things and more! Positive outcomes with people with dementia can be achieved through an activity that costs very little to implement and can be administered by volunteers at skilled nursing and memory care units around the country. Everyone likes listening to music and it’s been proven to especially help those with dementia.
Before I go any further, I have to strongly suggest viewing the film “Alive Inside: the Story of Music & Memory”. This film is available on the library streaming service “Kanopy”. This film will touch your heart and you’ll be amazed! In this film, we learn about how the brain retains memories that are associated with the music we loved growing up. Experts like Dr. Oliver Sacks explain to us in the film how there are many parts of the brain that are stimulated by music. Music has been shown to activate cognition and improve family visits in assisted living communities, and boost spirits and decrease pain in patients in hospitals. Personalized playlists brighten moods for individuals in adult day centers and have a dramatic impact on people in hospice and their families during their end of life journey.
From 2014-2016, I worked at the Veterans Home of California in West Los Angeles as an activity coordinator. This was an enormous home that served those qualifying for assisted living, skilled nursing or memory care. As I learned more about the residents, I started to acquire music I did not have from the generations I was serving. I bought a handful of dollar store headphones that I could personalize for safety and health reasons. I took some outside with their wheelchair, others could walk around the unit or be visited in their room. They loved it! I heard people singing and saw their faces light up when their favorite song by Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole played. One of the veterans with advanced Parkinson’s disease, mostly non-verbal and required feeding assistance would light up and hum along with the music. He loved old Jazz and he would also use his voice at times in reaction to the music. So much fun to watch!
My mom was a music lover and she and I had this in common. We could talk about Classical music together and I even turned her on to pieces she hadn’t heard before. Mom lived on a memory care unit in Texas and I was here in California. My older brother lived near her and looked after her care to the degree he knew how. My brother and I do not have the best relationship and we share very different values. I tried to tell him how to add to mom’s quality of life by facilitating music listening. I also told him I would provide the music for her. Joey’s response to me was “Mom can’t listen to music anymore” and he dismissed my suggestion completely. Needless to say, this was very disappointing to hear from my own brother. Well, I visited Mom once when I was in graduate school. I brought my headphone splitter and two sets of headphones so I could listen to her favorite piano concerto with her. I pressed play and she soon was smiling and gazing into my eyes. She had a difficult time communicating verbally at that point but in that moment I knew exactly how she was feeling.