Have you ever heard a song and suddenly had memories flood your mind of a certain time in your life? Did you ever wonder why you can barely remember what you had for lunch, yet you can recite the words to a song you have not heard in more than twenty years?
Scientists are discovering that music has a power beyond what anyone ever imagined, and that power is now being tapped to help seniors with various cognitive disabilities. It seems music is able to penetrate into the brain where speaking and reading cannot. So the musical flashback you experience when you hear a song from long ago has the same effect on people suffering from Alzheimer’s, dementia, and stroke.
“What seems to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head,” says Petr Janata, a cognitive neuroscientist at University of California, Davis. “It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person’s face in your mind’s eye.”
Colleen Brigid Fitzpatrick, LCSW, who practices at Harmony Village in Moorestown, N.J., is a neurologic music therapist who uses music for cognitive rehabilitation and mood stabilization. “There are endless reasons why music has so much potential and power in reaching patients with various forms of dementia,” she says. “Music is non-threatening and non-invasive, as well as having been proven to activate parts of the brain related to emotional and reward centers, potentially enhancing the ability to activate memory.”
In addition to possibly improving certain mental functions, music may also improve communication and help Alzheimer’s patients overcome withdrawal. Decreased agitation and depression have also been noted to occur in some individuals. The best part is that music is something people enjoy, and the more they listen, the more effective it may be.
The key is to create individualized play lists tailored to each person. Studies have found that music in general is good, but when songs are connected to a person’s past, the emotional response is more powerful.
After learning about the benefits of music, Gary Skole and Erica Reisman of the Mt. Laurel-based home care company Assisted Living At Home started a non-profit company called Music For Memory (www.musicformemory.org). The company’s mission is to collect used iPods and re-program them with music for seniors suffering from Alzheimer’s and other dementias. The iPods are given away free to anyone with a qualifying illness.
The senior care community recognizes the benefits of this program and has begun getting involved. Companies, like medical equipment supplier Komfort & Kare, and elder lawyer Jerold Rothkoff, are helping to make this program a success through their generous sponsorships.
While this program is not offering a cure, if it improves the quality of life for those suffering from a cognitive disability, it will be considered successful.
If you have an iPod you would like to donate or want more information on this program, contact Gary or Erica at 856-273-6440.