Watching loved ones wrestle with the symptoms of dementia is heartbreaking. As our loved one’s brain cells are ravaged by dementia their memory may start to fade, they may lose the ability to communicate, even the simplest tasks like keeping track of personal possessions or preparing meals can become impossible. No matter how many family photos we show or personal stories we recount, as dementia takes hold, the connections to our loved one becomes increasingly harder and painful to make.
But what if we could use music to reach those that suffering from the debilitating effects of dementia? It was a theory posed by Dan Cohen, a social worker and founder of Music and Memory, an organization that takes donated iPods to nursing homes to provide music therapy to patients suffering from Alzheimer’s and other related illnesses. And according to Cohen, it appears to be working.
“The impact of music . . . grows over time. So somebody after ten months of having their own music, let’s say three hours a week will score 50% better on their cognitive exams,” says Cohen.
Around 5 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s and Cohen and his organization are finding first-hand that these customized playlists are helping the patient to reawaken their past. “Every playlist is like a fingerprint. Everyone is different,” says Cohen. So for some patients, listening to the music through their donated iPods is not only calming and therapeutic, but in a way, it’s also like listening to the soundtrack of their lives.
Cohen says the feedback from loved ones is often something like, “wow, my mom, my dad, they reacted in a way that they haven’t in months, or they spoke and they haven’t spoken in months, or they recognized me, which they haven’t done.”
Researchers think music touches so many areas of the brain, making so many different types of connections that it may have the power to stir memories and feelings -- otherwise lost and forgotten. But, Dan Cohen stresses, “It’s not a cure, no one is going to live longer, but their function, very often is better.”
For Edna Hassenger, age 98, Dan Cohen’s music therapy is offering her a renewed and reinvigorated daily routine. Each day after breakfast Edna Hassenger puts on her headphones and presses the tiny play button on her iPod, “I can’t ever leave my foot still. I’m always going like this (tapping) with my feet.” Now Edna Hassenger has something to look forward to each day; tapping her feet to the music she grew old too.
- Dan Cohen