Hearing the first two lines of “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas and Papas takes me back to the Poor House, a popular watering hole when I was a nursing student in Syracuse. The song’s beginning phrases about brown leaves floating in a grey sky put me right there again. I can smell the beer and feel the crunch of peanut shucks strewn on the floor beneath my feet. We had to shout over the music to be heard. I would write begging letters home, claiming I was on my way to the poor house. Only two musical phrases brings all that back to me as fresh as today.

Music improves memory and reduces pain sensation so there is less need for strong pain medication. It puts us in a better mood, and helps us manage our emotions. I saw a person who was moaning in pain suddenly relax and smile the minute (literally) his favorite recording began to play. It was as if someone turned on a switch.

Music Therapy

Music activates those parts of the brain associated with personal memories, affecting the brain like nothing else. Music therapists are focusing on using personal playlists of those “oldies but goodies” that people remember from their past. In “The Healing Power of Music” by Mary Ellen Geist (AARP Bulletin July/August 2015), she writes that music therapists reported seeing people “wake up” when they heard a favorite melody. Some began to talk again, after years of silence. Music makes people more social and engaged in their surroundings.

The auditory nerve communicates with the amygdala, which is part of the brain’s limbic system (the fight or flight area). Consequently, sound arouses people. That’s why those patients “awakened” and became engaged in their surroundings. Favorite music also improves mood, boosts mental sharpness. It can reduce the need for anti-psychotic drugs.

Therapists pair a piece of music with a daily activity. The person with dementia will associate the music with the memory of that activity. According to Geist, this will improve cognitive ability over time. (There is quite a bit of research in this area. For example, visit https://musicandmemory.org/music-brain-resources/institute-for-music-and-neurologic-function/).

Old Musicians Never Die. They Just Go from Bar to Bar.

There’s some truth in that corny quip. I have noticed that music groups popular in the 60’s still bring the house down when they perform the hits that made then famous.  My father-in-law was a musician and bandleader well into his 80’s. Dad never missed a beat and could outplay anyone on the sax.

“Musical aptitude and appreciation are the last remaining abilities in dementia patients,” Geist writes.

Engaging physically in music, performing or dancing, proves even more powerful than merely listening. Dad told how people with walkers entered the dance-hall where he played, but would ditch them to dance. For the couple dealing with dementia, dancing provides a way to regain emotional and physical closeness, because it involves touching — and perhaps brings a few hugs and kisses too.

Caring for the Care Giver

Because music enhances mood and reduces stress for the person with dementia, the benefits extend to their care givers. In the study, “Effects of Personalized Music on Caregivers of Older Adults with Dementia in the Community” by Lisa Quinn-Lee, PhD and Donald Mowry, PhD, caregivers reported that because of the benefits of music for their loved ones, they themselves experienced less emotional burden and relationship distress.

I know, as a care giver, music soothes my nerves or makes me smile and yes, even dance.  Certain compositions, like “California Dreamin”” bring back vivid memories. To this day, my husband and I smile when we hear “our song.”

If you need to find resources to help you care for someone, click on the GRAPE logo below. Once on the GRAPE site, click on Elder Pages to find the businesses and agencies that serve the elderly in the Rochester area.