The Power of Music

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You know how songs can bring back memories? Think of a song that you heard at prom or played at your wedding. Or if you’re a parent, that Disney song your kid used to sing around the house. Just reading this probably made you feel a certain way. Hearing a song from your past has the power to take you back to a place and gives you a feeling, and that still happens for people with Alzheimer’s or dementia.

I’m very connected to this story. Back in early 2015, I had just started work at Vienna and the Administrator had tickets to the showing of the documentary “Alive Inside.” The documentary is about a program called Music & Memory, and how giving music to people with dementia and Alzheimer’s can dramatically improve their quality of life. At the time I didn’t know anyone with dementia. Despite having no personal connection to the disease, it was still one of the most inspiring films I had ever seen. I have never walked away from a film or movie feeling as inspired as I did that night. Alzheimer's and dementia is a horrible disease. It slowly breaks down a person’s brain. They start with forgetting little things and eventually don’t even recognize their children. It’s hard for the person with the disease, especially in the initial stages when they know they’re forgetting, and it’s arguably even more heartbreaking for the family who knows they will soon seem forgotten. It sucks. As of today, there’s no cure, but one thing we do have is music and music makes a difference. This documentary explored how music has this power to impact people, and the program they did this through was called Music & Memory. My Administrator and I sat in the audience and watched this film and when it was over and the lights came on, we knew we needed to bring Music & Memory to Lodi.

With Alzheimer’s, one of the last parts of the brain to shut down is the same part that registers music. The way the brain accesses memories associated with music is different than how it accesses other memories. So when people with Alzheimer’s or dementia hear the music they can sometimes still access those memories and these songs have the power to reconnect them with their former selves. It’s an incredibly powerful experience to watch someone who is so isolated by their disease, looking like they’re asleep, almost come back to life with one song; their demeanor changes, their face changes, their posture changes. Sometimes people who haven’t spoken speak or sing or both. People whose bodies seemed completely disconnected from their mind begin dancing. Sometimes it’s dramatic, and sometimes it just a simple smile that lets you know that person is still in there.

I keep using the word powerful but none of the synonyms convey just how moving seeing this program in action is. When we saw the documentary, my Administrator and I felt that this program was amazing. We thought we could absolutely change the lives of people in Lodi, but we didn’t expect any dramatic results like we were seeing in the film. We were wrong though. We didn’t expect dramatic results, but we got them. Right here in Lodi.

The first woman who was put on the program was new to Vienna and she was upset when she first got there. She had pretty advanced dementia and this woman who had been a sweet, church going woman her entire life was (due to the dementia) yelling at staff and residents, swinging her arms, and was really difficult to calm down. It’s pretty common for people with dementia to get upset like this woman. They’re often really confused and it can be understandably scary or frustrating for them. But even if it is common that doesn’t make it any less stressful for family and caregivers, and both family and caregivers in this situation were having a hard time. Since she was a very religious woman all of her life and active in her church, so we put gospel music on her iPod. When we put those headphones on her and the first song came on she stopped what she was doing, sat down, and started singing- with the most beautiful voice- Amazing Grace. People in the room had one of two reactions: 1- jaw dropping shock or 2- tears in their eyes. Mostly both. It really was like something out of a movie. It was totally unreal and beautiful.

Since then I would bet over a hundred people in Lodi have been through the program. We download music specific to that person and put it on an iPod for them. We use the program mostly for people with dementia, but we also give music to people to combat depression or just to generally improve their quality of life. Some reactions are dramatic, like the first woman we gave music to. One of the most recent stories was a woman whose dementia was pretty advanced. Almost none of her words (if they were understandable) made any sense. Before her illness she had had a really rocky relationship with her daughter but her daughter still came to see her out of moral obligation. One day when she came to see her mom, she told her mom goodbye as she was leaving, and her mom, whose words hadn’t made sense for years, called her daughter by her nickname, and told her she loved her. Do you have tears in your eyes? Because I get choked up every time I think about that story. Can you imagine what joy that must have brought her daughter? It’s not very often someone with dementia recognizes their kids once they’ve forgotten them. Imagine having your mom recognize you for the first time in who knows how long and what a blessing it would be to have her tell you she loved you... Once her mom is gone, the daughter will continue to remember how much that meant to her. We have other people whose reactions are far less dramatic, but to be able to bring anyone joy is a success.

I am so happy families in Lodi have this program. The community has also been hugely supportive sending in gift cards for iPods and iTunes so we can help more and more people. I am incredibly grateful to be part of this program. Music & Memory has given me the opportunity to connect intimately with others in a way I didn’t know was possible. Alzheimer’s and dementia are horrible, there’s no going around it. But being able to still connect with people through music gives me so much hope, and I am grateful to be able to bring families and loved ones together in these difficult times with just a simple song. Music & Memory is an incredibly special program and we are so lucky to have found it, to bring families in Lodi together, and, even if it’s just for a few minutes, bring joy and memories to people with Alzheimer's and dementia.