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The Powerful Effects of Music in Memory Care

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Have you ever witnessed a person who can no longer speak in a full sentence, but still can sing an entire song? Or have you ever listened and watched as a person with advanced memory loss beautifully plays an entire piece on a piano? In my work in memory care, I have had the privilege of having these types of experiences on many occasions. Regardless of how often this occurs, each time it happens I am no less inspired or amazed. The following are some ways that music plays such an important role in memory care.

1. Music stimulates the mind.

Some of the best memory care approaches are designed to tap into the retained abilities of the person with memory loss, focusing on their remaining strengths rather than their losses. According to Concetta Tomaino, executive director and co-founder of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function and senior vice president for Music Therapy at CenterLight Health Systems, "We now know from clinical case studies that music can affect -- in very specific ways -- human neurological, psychological and physical functioning in areas such as learning, processing language, expressing emotion, memory and physiological and motor responses."

Current research, also explains that the brain processes music in multiple areas. Interestingly enough, those areas tend to be less damaged by Alzheimer's disease. A great way to put this concept into practice is to include music into your loved one's day to bring them moments of enjoyment, familiarity and well-being.

Music therapy and music-appreciation programs are becoming a regular activity in some memory care and senior living communities. In fact, some forms of music therapy are even covered by medical insurance. Music is a wonderful medium for reminiscing with those with memory loss. While they may not recall every detail from events in the past, certain songs and types of music can stimulate the brain to recall some of the emotions and memories of days past.

2. Music energizes the body.

Playing rhythmic music while exercising helps to make it more upbeat and also may help to ease fatigue. Music with a beat or tempo that matches the pace of the exercise also helps to make the repetitive exercises more enjoyable. The simple act of singing itself has some physical benefits, such as improving the flow of oxygen in the body, which can lead to improved alertness, motor control and coordination.

3. Music nurtures the spirit.

Whether you are a music lover or just occasionally listen to the radio, most would agree that music can affect your mood. Music can calm and comfort a person and there is research that indicates that it can reduce pain. According to nurse-researcher Sandra Siedlecki, Ph.D., music can help to ease the symptoms of depression by up to 25 percent and reduce pain by up to 21 percent.

4. Music makes a difference in caregiving.

Caregiving can be one of the most meaningful and rewarding things a person can do. However, we also know that certain aspects of caregiving such as assisting your loved one in activities that involve personal care, especially in the bathroom, can present some challenging moments. Incorporating music by playing their favorite tunes or singing with them during these times can make the tasks more enjoyable for both the caregiver and person with memory loss. At Sunrise Senior Living, we play soothing background music to help residents relax and feel more comfortable when bathing. Relaxing symphony music or nature sounds are played in our Snoezelen Rooms (club rooms), where residents enjoy a calm, quiet, sensory and tactile environment, which can often help reduce the stress and anxiety that can accompany memory loss.

5. Music can be a bridge to communication.

"A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words." This Albert Camus quote really rings true for memory care. Music can be a powerful bridge helping caregivers to reach their loved one especially when he or she no longer is able to communicate with words. Music is one of the most powerful non-verbal Validation techniques developed by Naomi Feil, M.S.W. Naomi was able to make a really meaningful and remarkable connection with Gladys Wilson, a very withdrawn nursing home resident. Naomi used Gladys' favorite kind of music (which was religious), and matched the tone and tempo of Gladys' hand tapping on the arm of her wheelchair. Gladys was mostly nonverbal, but she responded by completing a verse of the song, which was an absolutely amazing demonstration of Validation.

Another remarkable story about the power of music therapy is the Music & Memory video of Henry, an elderly nursing home resident who appears at first to be withdrawn, but upon listening to his favorite music on an iPod breaks out in song.

Fortunately, you don't have to be a physician, scientist, memory care specialist or music therapist to make meaningful connections through music. So dust off that piano or CD player, or better yet, warm up your voice and start singing!

For more by Rita Altman, R.N., click here.

For more on caregiving, click here.

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