Merrily Orsini's Thought Leadership

Music and Memories. There is Power in the Tunes, Forever.

Music and Memories: a Powerful Combination

Moved by the Power of Music

There’s something so interesting about the power of music. We can be busy with our day, traveling in our car to another meeting, and on comes Etta James’s At Last, and for a moment we’re not sitting in our car; we are back at our high school dance waiting for Randy Herlocker to ask for a slow dance. We associate music with long-term memories, and it’s a powerful, emotionally moving and downright quick experience.

And there’s a reason so many of us describe music as “moving.” It’s because it stimulates more parts of the brain than any other human function, according to Elena Mannes, who wrote The Power of Music, a book about how music can play a bigger role in health care. Because of this fact, Mannes sees the potential of music’s power to change the brain and affect the way it works.

She’s not the only one. Social worker Dan Cohen has also been hard at work in this field, specifically related to improving care outcomes for patients with dementia in long-term-care homes. He believes music could be an ideal tool in health care to help animate and bring a sense of identity to someone living with advanced dementia. Cohen is the founder of Music & Memory, a nonprofit program that promotes the use of digital music players with individualized playlists to improve the quality of life for elders. The program has seen success because even though Alzheimer’s damages the ability to recall facts and details, it does not destroy the connections between a favorite song and an important memory, no matter how long ago.

Cohen has found that these personalized playlists can decrease reliance on anti-psychotic and anti-anxiety medications, enhance engagement and socialization and actually be a boost for caregivers, due to the reduced agitation and decreased resistance to care.

For a closer look at Cohen’s approach, check out the documentary that follows him called Alive Inside. The documentary chronicles people with dementia, caregivers, and experts in the field. The film shows us the effect listening to personal music favorites can have on a person with a disease that damages brain chemistry—they can reconnect, sometimes in a matter of seconds. Check out this moving documentary excerpt of Henry listening to his personalized playlist.

Much has been done in the area of incorporating music into care in the assisted living facility front. In fact, so far 489 long-term care settings in 42 states and 8 countries are Music & Memory Certified. The program is spreading to other areas of healthcare, including hospice, home care and hospitals.

There are 16,000 long-term care facilities in the U.S., which serve as home for 1.6 million individuals. In regards to home care, there are approximately 33,000 providers in the U.S. that provide home health care for about 12 million individuals, according to NAHC, the National Association for Home Care & Hospice. This means there are millions of opportunities for music to be introduced to  home care, too. Thankfully, an iPod or digital music player is a simple technology that most caregivers own. The trickiest part of the process (and some would argue the most fun) is compiling the personalized playlist.

If interested, the Music & Memory program trains professional caregivers to create playlists on iPods that are personally meaningful to each resident. Or you can do it on your own, too.

As a home health care provider or caregiver, you can leave the personalized playlist on an iPod or digital audio device at the patient’s home and interact with him/her and the music on your visit. It’s rewarding for not only the patient, but for family members and the caregiver or health care professional, too.

If you were making your own playlist, something that would light a fire within you, what would it include?

Here are a few of my personal favorites:

Rolling Stones, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” 

Janis Joplin, “Take a Little Piece of My Heart”

Sonny and Cher, “I Got You Babe” 

Beatles, “Ticket to Ride” 

Loving Spoonful, “Do You Believe in Magic?” 

In a mind that battles with recollecting, it’s an amazing gift to rouse someone’s memories and identity, all with the powerful starting spark of music. And, if you were born close to the era of music that moves me, you are also going to have to move to that music. But that is a blog for another time.