Good Life

The soundtrack of your life: Music & Memory program gives seniors with dementia a chance to go home again

Kaitlin Hoover sets up resident Mary Garcia, 87, with a music playlist. Juniper Village Wellspring Memory Care at Brookline has been pairing residents with iPods as part of a therapy program.
Kaitlin Hoover sets up resident Mary Garcia, 87, with a music playlist. Juniper Village Wellspring Memory Care at Brookline has been pairing residents with iPods as part of a therapy program. CDT photos

The sound of silence is loud.

Well not silence, exactly. There’s an alarm going off at Juniper Village at Brookline — Wellspring Memory Care, a shrill, monotone and very public reminder that not all doors are made to be walked through.

Nobody seems very concerned, as if this is the kind of mistake that just happens from time to time, the kind of ambient noise that comes as naturally to this type of environment as a ringing phone or a squeaky wheelchair.

Nestled comfortably in a rocking chair, 87-year-old resident Mary Garcia seems particularly unperturbed. A slender pair of earbuds have carried her far, far away from the persistent wailing that grounds everyone else firmly in the small office.

Kaitlin Hoover, connections director at Juniper Village Wellspring, holds both Garcia’s hand and the pink iPod Shuffle at the other end of the earbuds. This has been a demonstration of the facility’s Music & Memory initiative, a program implemented in October that has quickly become a crucial component in the daily routines of residents like Garcia.

“If she doesn’t get her music at 4 p.m., it sends her on a rampage,” Hoover says.

The epidemic of rioting seniors isn’t just a local phenomenon. Founded by Dan Cohen, Music & Memory is a national nonprofit organization that trains elder care professionals in the use of digital music technology, creating personalized playlists for people suffering from cognitive ailments like dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

According to the nonprofit’s web page, music is intricately connected with long-term memory. Familiar melodies and lyrics can calm chaotic brain activity and trigger long-dormant recollections or associated experiences.

Always have memories

Alex Sniderman, program administrator at Memory & Music, said music tends to affect people the most between the ages of 15 and 25. Revisiting these tunes again in their golden years can provide seniors with the rare opportunity to go home again.

“It gives them a window into their old life and their old memories,” Sniderman said.

The program was implemented at Juniper Village Wellspring in October and then really kicked off in January with a public screening of the documentary “Alive Inside.” The film, which won the Audience Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, follows Cohen as he advocates for music’s ability to combat memory loss.

“Once you see it, you’re thinking, ‘How can I get involved?’ You want to be a part of it,” Elizabeth Plozner Chalfa, executive director at Juniper Village Wellspring, said.

A powerful presence

The facility rotates five sets of iPods and headphones among 34 residents. Each resident has a personalized playlist, a musical itinerary carefully cultivated from questionnaires, family members and caretakers’ individual knowledge of each of their charges.

Back in her rocker, Garcia sings along to a Spanish melody, a reminder of her late husband. She lets out a tiny sigh of recognition and tears glisten in her eyes. Being anchored to the past has helped her find clarity in the present.

In her professional life, Garcia was a schoolteacher and administrator who enjoyed traveling the world in her spare time. Post-retirement, she and her late husband spent time in a Florida retirement village, where they joined dance classes and singing groups.

Music has always had a powerful presence in Garcia’s life and she enjoyed sharing it with others. She taught her niece, Karen Wertz, how to play the piano at a young age.

Wertz continues to visit her aunt at Juniper Village, and while she’s not sure that the music on Garcia’s iPod restores her memories to full luster, she says she thinks it brings back something positive for her.

“It just brightens her up,” Wertz said.

Precisely when this bright spot occurs varies from day to day. The iPods are typically deployed closer to the evening, but if a resident becomes agitated, caregivers may decide to cue the music — which in some cases can reduce a patient’s reliance on psychotropic drugs.

Music as a drug

Sniderman said there has been movement in states across the country to reduce the use of psychotropic drugs in nursing homes, a gap that he thinks Music & Memory can help fill.

“It puts us in a really great position where we’re able to help with this new mission,” Sniderman said.

The program has also stimulated more than just neural connections — Plozner Chalfa said residents have enjoyed sharing their musical tastes with their children and grandchildren, who lend their expertise in downloading music and building playlists.

Garcia’s dementia can often cause her to mix memories during conversations, but music has helped anchor her interactions with family by giving them something tangible to discuss.

“It gives us a subject to talk about,” Wertz said.

Juniper Village staff hope the talk surrounding Music & Memory continues well into the future.

“Ideally we want a set of headphones and a (iPod) Shuffle for each resident. That’s our ultimate goal,” Plozner Chalfa said.

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