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 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.
I, too, visited that watering hole and have to add that the music was as much of a lure as the cheap beer and the nice guys! But music influenced our lives in other ways during our time in nursing school.
We frequently held many musical events in our school recreation room, attended by our classmates, many of whom were really quite talented. One of the most adept was a familiar name who actually attended the prestigious Eastman School of Music and could knock off a piano concerto like a pro. That same student was kind enough to mentor me so I could do justice to Debussy’s romantic “Claire de Lune” in one of our shows! Yes…that super pianist was no other than the author of this blog, Susan Yockel LeDoux!
We also made use of singing tunes to pass the time. On our way to LeMoyne College on the bus, there were strains of “Michael Rode the Boat Ashore” plus multiple Peter, Paul and Mary folk songs that marked that era.
I still retain my fondness for folk and Celtic tunes; I equate them with fond memories of my happy youth!
Those were wonderful days, Cathy, and I share memories of you AND I in that watering hole! “Our” music will always remind us of friendship ties that bind and that’s why I’m sure it can drill through dementia. It’s not just the music, it’s the dear friends with whom we shared the music, ….Love the Celtic Women, as I’m sure you must.
Sue I so remember those good old days!i remember playing classical music for our little premature babies and it would calm them right down even our withdrawal babies.I always listen to my favorites some of them dating back to St Joes and my mood is always improving and I have more energy Thanks for sharing Lenette
Thanks for sharing about how the preemies responded to classical music, Lenette. It’s just proof how powerful music is across the age/wellness/disease spectrum. From little preemies to the very old, and those of us in between!