By Lauren Mahakian. Originally published in “The Alzheimer’s Whisperer” in PV News – 8-6-2020

We’ve all had “that” experience with music. You’re going about your life working, playing, or whatever, and you suddenly become aware of a song playing, one that takes you back in your mind to a different place and time. You reminisce. You remember details like emotions, smells, and colors. You might even have a hard time getting the song out of your head for days.

Whatever became locked in your distant memory and suddenly brought to the forefront was likely significant in some way, and you likely hadn’t thought of it for longer than you can remember. Until the music played.

What is this power of music that is so powerful that it brings up memories tucked deep away in long-term memory? And can music then be used to help those with significant memory impairment?

The power of music is much more challenging to explain and the subject of ongoing research, but we know that music taps into all types of memory, including very short-term (or echoic) memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory. Advertisers and filmmakers alike have used music for years to evoke emotion through music and sounds, so this really shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us.

What fascinates me is how memories are made with music and then unconsciously recalled from long ago. Some can do it with even the mention of a song. Others can trigger with just a word or two and they begin humming or singing, remembering words they didn’t know they ever knew. Ever join people in a sing-along and you’re surprised you know more of lyrics than you remember? This is all the effect of music and memory.

This access to long-term memory offer anyone suffering from significant memory impairment—and those who care for them—a way to connect to memories to bring some good times and make new memories in the process.

Music has long been known to be a great help in caring for those with memory impairments. If you do an Internet search for “music and memory” the story of Henry (the film is titled, “Alive Inside”) is likely to appear near the top. Promoted by an organization called Music and Memory, the video beautifully shows how a man with advanced dementia comes alive when music is played for him. He changes almost immediately from expressionless, if not sadness, to expressive and animated. The evidence is clear. Music somehow tapped into Henry’s memory.

In my practice of dementia care, all of my care homes use music with residents, and we have seen tremendous results. Music is played throughout the day beginning at breakfast. Staff at each home selects a genre based on the age group of their residents. While not all music stimulates profound effects such as those seen in the Alive Inside video, we do see effects. Some music will resonate specifically with one or more residents, and we take note for future use in one-on-one encounters. Generally, however, we see that residents are overall healthier, happier, and more social than without music. Staff regain valuable time previously lost to behavior management issues. The effects are clear.

What’s more, there is growing evidence that a personalized music program may be used effectively by professionals as one more tool in their effort to reduce reliance on anti-psychotic medications. Music connects generally to almost everyone. Personalized music, where music is meaningful to the listener, almost always connects. Again, the effects are clear, and they are immediate.

Confused how to get started using music to connect with your loved one? Begin with music you know that she or he enjoys. If you’re not sure, try music from their early to late teens. If they’re religious, don’t forget to explore that genre. Adjust your selections based on their response, and never force your choices on him or her. But by all means, get started. You have nothing to lose and a lot to gain from the experiment.

Lauren Mahakian is a certified Dementia Practitioner and offers a free podcast, Unlocking the Doors of Dementia™ with Lauren. Visit familyconnectmemorycare.com for more information.

Lauren Mahakian is a certified dementia practitioner and offers a free podcast, Unlocking the Doors of Dementia™ with Lauren. Visit familyconnectmemorycare.com for more information

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