Music and Memory: How Songs Rejuvenate Seniors’ Lives

This senior care center improves its residents’ present by reconnecting them with playlists from their past.

By Laura RiceFebruary 18, 2016 9:25 am, ,

There’s a lot we don’t understand about the human brain. We’re still learning more about what happens when people start to experience dementia or other memory loss. There’s no cure for something like Alzheimer’s right now, so when there’s a chance to improve the lives of people with dementia, caregivers like Debra Maddox are eager to give it a shot.

Maddox is the director of admissions and marketing at Hill Country Senior Care. Along with the chicken coop out back, she shows me the center’s herb garden.

“As therapeutic value – I have all the herbs planted – we’ll pick some and we’ll let them smell them,” she says.

Maddox makes it her mission to improve the lives of residents. On the day I stopped by the center, there was live music in the lobby.

Music is actually at the center of my visit. Hill Country Senior Care is part of a program called “Music & Memory.” It was featured in a recent documentary, “Alive Inside.” The idea is to have seniors spend an hour a day listening to music from their past in an effort to improve their present. Maddox says they’ve seen results just one month into the program.

“This is a woman who doesn’t feed herself. She doesn’t really remember who she is. You put that music on her – she fed herself yesterday,” Maddox says. “We were shocked. We have another one who is always ‘exit-seeking.’ We call him a track star because he wants out. You put his music on him and he stays put – because he’s happy.”

Bert Everett is also part of the program.

“I borrow her headphones, and I can go get it anytime, and I do,” he says. “Then I listen to it, and then I take it back to her after that.”

He says he has slightly different music preferences than his wife of 61 years, Rene.

“I like classical music and she likes more of the modern. Of course I’m answering for her,” he says. “I’ve done that for 60-some years.”

“I like Western music and he likes classical. But we compromise,” Rene says.

“We can’t imagine our lives without music,” Bert says. “We love to dance.”

The Everetts don’t do much dancing now, but psychologist Bob Duke says listening to the music they danced to sparks something in the brain.

“It has an auditory memory to it,” Duke says. “It might also (associate) with some kinds of episodic memories that happened at a time when we heard something – maybe dating someone and a song was playing on the radio.”

Duke heads up music and human learning at the University of Texas at Austin’s Butler School of Music and leads the Center for Music Learning. He says for dementia patients, it’s not surprising these songs connected with their younger years could re-ignite parts of the brain.

“Memories that are widely distributed in the brain … persist longer than some memories that aren’t so,” Duke says.

Musician Terry Heller regularly performs at nursing homes. She remembers the first time she noticed her music was really making a connection with a few World War II veterans at the back of the room who were otherwise unresponsive.

“When I started playing some of the patriotic tunes, they stood up at attention and they sang every word,” Heller says. “I still get tears in my eyes because it was so moving that the music reached in and they sang, when they couldn’t talk.”

“You realize that inside they’re thinking, they’re feeling, they just can’t transmit it,” Heller says. “We noticed that the music is starting to bring out the emotions in people.”

Debra Maddox says Hill Country Senior Care has paid for and been certified by the non-profit Music and Memory program. But psychologist Bob Duke says it’s also something people should feel they can try at home.

“Playing that music for them, and maybe even encouraging them to sing with music from that time period, can be very invigorating for people who seem like they respond to almost nothing,” he says.

Listening to music can be beneficial, Duke says, even if the result is only to improve that person’s mood. Maddox agrees. But she’s hoping for even more, with the help of seven iPod shuffles and playlists from the past.

“Half of the people here right now won’t live ’til next year,” Maddox says. “So we want to make them as happy as they possibly can be. You know, if we can have somebody converse with their loved one for the last couple of months of their life, I want to try to do that.”