By Ashley Gravatte, ADRC Program Specialist
The connection between music and memory has been studied for many years. Research has found that not only is music embedded deeply in our brains and helps to retrieve memory, it also helps to form pathways to new ones. Think back to your early school years and the number of songs used to help us memorize and recall information. Songs to help you learn your ABC’s or all of the US states in alphabetical order. We are born with an inherent connection to sound, melody, and rhythm that has been evolutionary.
When I worked at a skilled nursing facility in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I worked with a man who was in the middle to late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. He was unable to communicate as he once did. He was not oriented to self, place, or time, but the moment I started playing “Stormy Weather” by Lena Horne he was instantaneously transported back to his days as a pianist at the Copacabana on E 60th street in NYC. Al would play “air piano” while a sang. He would tell me everything there was to know about the song. Who sang it, who wrote it, which notes I was playing incorrectly. One song led to another and another. Soon we had a portable keyboard right next to his bed and despite his inability to see or to recognize his loved ones he came alive when that part of his brain was activated. This enabled him to share beautiful moments of connection with his wife and children.
Music not only works for reminiscence but can help with reduction in stress, anxiety, depression and agitation. Music invites us to participate in meaningful social interactions or simply moving from one place to another with a fun rhythm. Studies have found that the part of the brain that preserves our memories related to music are often untouched by the disease and may never leave the person as the disease progresses.
A few simple ways to start using music with the person you are caring for could be by singing a very familiar song such as “You are My Sunshine” and leave space for them to finish a word, phrase, or verse. Try clapping or tapping a rhythm such as “Shave and a Haircut” and see if they will finish or echo the rhythm. Or simply play their favorite recorded music and share a memory you have associated with that song. When music is used as a means of connecting with our person living with dementia we meet them on a level far deeper than we can fathom.
Ashley Gravatte is the Program Specialist at ADRC, bringing more than ten years of experience in a variety of senior care settings. She holds a graduate certificate in music therapy and a bachelor’s of music from Boston Conservatory. Look for some exciting music-themed workshops from Ashley on our events calendar later this year! Contact Ashley at [email protected]