In the mental health field, music has been used as an effective mode of therapy since the 1800’s (American Music Therapy Association, 2015) and is still widely used today for many mental health issues and disorders. In particular, it has been found to be highly effective for those with dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. In Williamstown, New Jersey, residents at Juniper Village Wellspring Memory Care Community have begun to receive the music and memory program (Pritchett, 2015). This program began from the work of Dan Cohen and was described in the recently released documentary, Alive Inside (Rossato-Bennet, 2014). These residents are starting to see the benefits of what so many have experienced, thanks to Cohen. These residents have become more social, less isolated and less depressed since starting the program (Pritchett, 2015).
Music therapy for memory loss
Over 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease (Alzheimer’s Association, 2015). With so many affected by such a devastating disease, new treatment approaches are constantly being sought out for those who suffer from it. Music therapy has been found to be an effective treatment not only in improving the quality of life but also in improving memory of those who are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and other dementias. In his documentary, Rossato-Bennet (2014) follows the work of Dan Cohen who is a social worker studying the effects of music on individuals with dementia in nursing home care. Cohen is the founder of the organization, Music & Memory that is fighting the healthcare system to fund more individualized music therapy to combat memory loss for those suffering from different types of dementia. The film follows nursing home residents, not unlike those in Juniper Village, with dementias who have severe memory loss and appear to be in a constant state of despair. Many are depicted as sitting alone, despondent, finding little pleasure in life.
Cohen wanted to experiment with how music that was a part of their earlier years would impact the current state of these individuals. Cohen identified music that was meaningful to the individuals from collateral sources and gave them each iPods filled with personalized playlists. Almost immediately, the film shows us a profound change in affect with each individual. Many had their heads down and once hearing the music from an earlier time, they would raise their heads, open their eyes, smile, sing and sometimes even dance in their chairs. In one example, Cohen started interviewing a woman with dementia but she couldn’t remember specific facts from her past. Once he put the headphones on her and the music started to play, she began to verbally recount memories from the time that she had listened to that particular song that was playing. Not only was the individualized playlist of music allowing them access to memories they weren’t otherwise able to access, it instantly brought joy and meaning back to those who in many ways had given up on life. It’s as if the music that these elderly individuals heard as young people became engraved on their brains for them to re-access again in later years. However, not only did they remember the song itself but also the memories that surrounded the music. This is such a powerful therapeutic tool in order to aid these individuals with precious memories that seemed lost to them, but to also in many ways, bring them back to life. As we see above, Cohen’s program has started to gain momentum in Jew Jersey and we will likely see more of these programs in use in other communities
Music and the brain
In watching the film Alive Inside or reading about the residents of Juniper Village, we can see how people with dementia are responding positively to individualized music therapy. However, let’s look at how music affects our brain. According to Sacks (2008) there is no “music center” in the brain, but a vast network across different areas of the brain that allows us to comprehend and respond to music. It is clear that music is fundamental to all cultures of people. We sense music not only with our ears but also in other parts of our body, feeling it in our muscles, mirroring a melody in our facial features. Human beings have an amazing musical memory with songs heard early in life being essentially etched on the brain for a lifetime (Sacks, 2008). So, how does music impact memory?
First, according to Klemm (2013), music releases dopamine in our systems, which is a “feel good” neurotransmitter. It has been found in studies that those listening to music that felt “positive” to them, enhanced their memory to do better on academic tests. In addition, the hippocampus is the structure in the brain that is responsible for both memory and emotion (Klemm, 2013). Thus, we can see how music can impact our emotions and be highly connected to specific emotions as well as bolster our ability to retrieve memories.
People with dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, are able to have more access to precious memories, have more interaction with those they love and have an overall improvement in their quality of life. Our wondrous, complex brains allow us to enjoy and experience the therapeutic benefits of music even when we have a significant disability such as dementia.
Alzheimer’s facts and figures. (n.d.) Retrieved February 20, 2015, from http:// www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_facts_and_figures.asp
History of music therapy. (n.d.). Retrieved February 19, 2015, from http://www.musictherapy.org/about/history/
Klemm (2013). Does music help memory? Students listen to music while studying. Is this a good idea?. Retrieved March 1, 2015, from www.psychologytoday.com/blog/memory-medic/201312/does-music-help-memory
Pritchett, K. (2015). Music Therapy: Juniper Village unveils music & memory program for those with Alzheimer’s. Retrieved March 1, 2015, from http://www.nj.com/gloucester-county/index.ssf/2015/03/music_therapy_juiper_village_unveils_music_memory.html
Rossato-Bennett, M. (Writer/Director). (2014) Alive Inside [Motion picture]. United States: Projector Media.
Sacks, O.W. (2008). Musicophilia: Tales of music and the brain. New York: Random House, Inc.