Music therapy including favorite songs stimulates memory

Barbara Hootman

Playing favorite songs to people who have memory loss may not help them recognize family members. But it can trigger memories from their past.

When a favorite song plays, some laugh, dance or sing. A light often returns to eyes dimmed by memory loss, at least for awhile.

Special music therapy, as it’s called, has improved the quality of life for some of the more than five million people 65 years old or older - and about 200,000 individuals under 65 - suffering Alzheimer’s Disease, in the U.S. according to the Alzheimer’s Association. At Black Mountain Neuro-Medical Treatment Center, it is helping Alzheimer patients and those suffering various forms of dementia and developmental behavior problems. The center is a certified music and memory facility, having been certified by Music and Memory, Inc.

Recreational therapists Lindsay Allen and Libby Red started using the therapy at the center two years ago after viewing the documentary film “Alive Inside,” which explores using music to trigger memories in Alzheimer’s patients.

“We were so impressed with the film,” Allen said. “We tested the techniques with 15 patients using special music which was made up of their favorite songs. The results were amazing.”

The results are providing the center with research data and techniques that it is sharing with area nursing homes, hospitals and skilled nursing facilities.

The Black Mountain Center Foundation agreed to support the program financially by designating a quarter of the center’s annual budget to make the program available to 150 patients at the center (funding, available for 50 patients now, buys headphones, iPods and iPads).

“I was worried about equipment being lost or broken, and the foundation assured me that it would replace it,” Greta Reath, the center’s assistant director said. “The equipment is expensive, and we want all of our patients to have the basic equipment for music therapy - that is how impressed we are with the results of the program. It costs the center about $60 to purchase a headphone and to add an iPod with a music play list.

Each headset is covered with material that appeals to the patient. For instance, if they love cats, the covers have a cat theme. Patients who cannot handle headphones use speakers or and ear buds. Reath said making the covers is time-consuming. She’d love some volunteers experienced in sewing to help out.

Allen and Joyce Norton, the center’s adaptive clothing designer, create and sew each iPod and headphone cover.

During spring 2014, Warren Wilson College students used the music therapy program as one of their community service projects.

“The students were extremely valuable in helping to develop individual playlists for the patients,” Reath said. “The students worked with the patients only about an hour each session because that is all the time the patients could tolerate the stimulation. We hope to work with the students again next spring.”

Red thinks the music and memory program far exceeds expectations.

“It is truly amazing to see some of these patients come alive again when nothing else worked with them,” she said. “A particular patient comes to mind. Her husband came a long distance to visit her, and couldn’t come often. He wanted just one more time with her when she recognized him.

“After we started music therapy and he had supplied us with some of her favorite songs, he stood at the nurse’s station and waited to see if she recognized him. She was wearing the headphone and her favorite music was playing when she walked over and touched his hand. And he knew she recognized him.

“Later they sat on a couch both listening to their favorite music, and she put her head on his shoulder and went to sleep. Shortly after the incident she passed, but he got his one last recognition from her.”

The music program at the center is called “Just Play Music.”

“It really is that simple,” Allen said. “The music is on an iPod card that fits in a pocket on the cover of the headphone, and all you have to do is push play. Our doctors at the center recommend that for some patients, the music should be tried first and then medication comes second. Our staff reaches for headphones with specific music to settle a patient, or help them sleep or help them overcome a difficult behavior situation.”

The therapy is effective with Down Syndrome patients also, Allen said. “When I put the headphones on one patient with her favorite music, she sat up and began to laugh,” she said. “Research shows that music memory is one the last brain functions to go. I didn’t expect the results to be so profound. It really works.”

Red says it is important to realize that special music therapy is not just another activity for people suffering memory loss.

“It is so much more,” she said. “It is just as effective with helping to manage behavior problems as it is with memory loss. It helps connections in the brain catch up with each other rather than miss.”

Allen says the center is working with the Land of Sky Regional Council to introduce music therapy to at least 20-25 percent of skilled nursing facilities in the area by the end of 2016.