Where Words Fail Music Speaks

Nearly any of us can experience a strong emotional response upon hearing the first chords of a song from a long-ago time in our lives. While many of us don't think about this response in detail, Stan Cohen, a former social worker and technology professional did. When he discovered that nursing homes didn't appear to be using personalized music on iPods for their residents, he decided that something had to be done about the situation. He founded Music & Memory, a nonprofit that provides personalized music via iPods and MP3 players to Alzheimer's patients and others.

Through his innovative program Music & Memory, more than 400 nursing homes in 38 states as well as Canada, the U.K., the Netherlands, Israel, Australia and Singapore have begun to use personalized playlists on iPods for people who have a difficult time communicating.

It's hard to believe that no one started such a program before, but like most great efforts, someone with a vision must take action, and 62-year-old Cohen proved to be the right person to make this happen.

According to an article on Newsday, the right playlist can make a huge difference for an individual with dementia:

"Marine Corps veteran George Greening, 56, who has been living in the dementia unit at the Long Island State Veterans Home since September, closes his eyes as he hears a song, his expression turning to bliss. 'Harry Chapin is my favorite,' says Greening. The music, he says, revives happy feelings from years ago"His 16-page playlist of songs includes artists from the '70s that are the favorites of many baby boomers -- Earth, Wind and Fire, the Bee Gees, Creedence Clearwater Revival."

Music as therapy

The American Music Therapy Association's website states that music therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program. According to the site, music therapy interventions can be designed to promote wellness, manage stress, alleviate pain, express feelings, enhance memory, improve communication and promote physical rehabilitation.

Who doesn't know someone - or a lot of people - who informally use music for therapy? A friend of mine has a plaque on his kitchen wall near where his daughter who has severe disabilities often sits to use her switch activated devices and toys. The plaque is homey and simple but the words are powerful. It reads: Where Words Fail Music Speaks. My friend
discovered years ago that playing his guitar for his daughter could connect them on a very basic level as well as bring both of them joy.

On a similar instinctive level, I kept my dad who suffered from a failed brain surgery that plunged him into dementia, well supplied with CDs from the Big Band era. This music represented the time of his life when he was, perhaps, the most care free. Very little could get Dad smiling quite like a Buddy Rich CD.

No one had to tell me that Dad needed something to bring him joy. It was obvious that the surgery had taken away almost everything that could even come close to doing that. Music, however, could - at least on some days. It was one of the few things that he could relate to, providing him with good memories and a joyful experience.

The Alzheimer's Foundation of America has an excellent page on music therapy for people with dementia. An eloquent quote from their site reads:

Music has power especially for individuals with Alzheimer's disease and related dementias. And it can spark compelling outcomes even in the very late stages of the disease.

When used appropriately, music can shift mood, manage stress-induced agitation, stimulate positive interactions, facilitate cognitive function, and coordinate motor movements.

This happens because rhythmic and other well-rehearsed responses require little to no cognitive or mental processing. They are influenced by the motor center of the brain that responds directly to auditory rhythmic cues. A person's ability to engage in music, particularly rhythm playing and singing, remains intact late into the disease process because, again, these activities do not mandate cognitive functioning for success.

These organizations give authority and credibility to the instinctive actions of many of us that care for loved ones who have lost normal communication skills. While my friend and I are both well versed in the immense value of caring for our impaired loved ones with a soothing voice and tender touch, we have also recognized how music can reach them when nothing else seems to.

When words fail music speaks is not just a saying. It's a scientific fact.

Brown, P. (2014, February 18) Personalized music helps dementia patients. Newsday. Retrieved from http://www.newsday.com/lifestyle/retirement/personalized-music-helps-dementia-patients-1.7120200

Marley, M. (2012, July 2) Using Music to Engage Alzheimer's Patients. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marie-marley/alzheimers_b_1639662.html

Alzheimer's Foundation of America. Music Therapy. Retrieved from http://www.alzfdn.org/EducationandCare/musictherapy.html

Carol Bradley Bursack
Meet Our Writer
Carol Bradley Bursack

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. This experience provided her with her foundation upon which she built her reputation as a columnist, author, blogger, and consultant. Carol is as passionate about supporting caregivers work through the diverse challenges in their often confusing role as she is about preserving the dignity of the person needing care. Find out much more about Carol at mindingourelders.com.