It was another Tuesday night and my wife and I found ourselves yet again in another game of “Netflix Roulette”… that fatiguing process of trying to decide what to watch (classic victims of “Hick’s Law”). 

We narrowed it down to the documentary category and stumbled upon the title “Alive Inside – A Story of Music and Memory”. We were both intrigued and sensed this film would likely impact us given that its topic was that of the impact of music on people living with dementia.

The author with his mother, Mrs. Eisen.
The author with his mother.

My mother, now 87 years of age, moved to an assisted living complex 6 years ago following a confirmation of Alzheimer’s Disease, though we had noticed the decline in her memory for some time prior. At first, I visited and spoke with her often, however in the past year or so, her memory further declined. 

On a good day, she’d remember my name. Any other day, she’d ask me to remind her who I was. It was heartbreaking, to say the least. Sometimes, when I called her on the phone, not 20 seconds would pass before she would say: “OK.  Be Well.  Stay in touch”. She seemed to prefer to be alone in her own thoughts. 

This is the same mother who years prior, would never know how to say goodbye when I called, and who had a knack for a never-ending barrage of questions and stories about family, news, gossip and anything else she could think of. Now she barely acknowledged me as her own son.

I responded by resisting visits with her and phoning her far less. I convinced myself that my visits and calls were meaningless for her and certainly didn’t make me feel good when I left.

Music and Memory

The topic of music and memory was not new to me.  I had long heard and seen how the area of the brain that responds to music is one of the last areas to be impacted by dementia. 

I’ve witnessed my mother singing along with the other residents during their various music events. In fact, my brother Dan took the initiative some time ago, of bringing in a music therapist who has been working with my mother on a regular basis. I had heard that she enjoyed the sessions and we even got a video of one of them which you can watch below.

However, it wasn’t until that Tuesday night watching Netflix that I began to better understand the true impact of music on people living with dementia.

Alive Inside

Alive Inside

The film “Alive Inside” directed by Michael Bennett, follows Dan Cohen, a public social worker, who brings Apple iPods outfitted with headphones into nursing homes for the residents impacted by dementia. 

The documentary zeroes in on a few specific patients and makes a compelling case for integrating this non-pharmacological intervention into the into the therapeutic protocols for dementia patients. There are a number of unforgettable stories featured that are hard to forget and will have you choking up. 

One of the most memorable, and one that went viral on YouTube is that of a 90-something resident with advanced dementia named Henry Dryer who sits in his chair with his head lowered, looking nearly catatonic, with little to no response to the outer world. 

When the caregiver places the headphones over his ears and starts the music, an amazing transformation takes place as Henry hears the music of Cab Calloway, his favourite singer/musician. Henry’s head lifts up with eyes open wide and he sings along to the music of years gone by. 

The effect persists even after the headphones are removed as he interacts with Dan, recounting his favourite music, singing and explaining how music gives him a “feeling of love”. Watch the clip of these wonderful moments below.

After watching the film I knew that this was something I must do with my mother. I wouldn’t use an iPod as I wanted to maximize the chances that my mother could still use the device on her own and I felt the iPod was not intuitive for a person with dementia.

Intuitive Music Device for Dementia Patients

The iGuerburn MP3 Player

I found the perfect device on Amazon. It’s called the iGuerburn 16Gb MP3 player, and it’s specially made for people suffering from dementia. 

The device looks like an old time radio with one large button on top that moves up and down boldly displaying the words “ON” and “OFF”. Following the simple instructions, I loaded approximately 100 songs into the player. I couldn’t wait to assemble music that I remember her enjoying when I was a child.

I also added music that likely played in her youth growing up in Israel along with music from Yiddish theatre. I was able to find most of them online and managed to fill the player with over 100 songs.   

The Power of Music + Dementia

My daughter and I went to visit her and we set up the player. We made sure she felt comfortable with the control (the ON / OFF button) and we asked her to turn it on.  ‘

She loved it. She responded instantly to one of her favourite songs, Que Sera Sera by Doris Day, made famous in the Hitchcock film, The Man who Knew Too Much. She was joyful, engaging, singing and full of emotion. Watch the video below for her reaction.

She didn’t want us to leave and asked when we were coming again. What a difference for her, for me, for my daughter… for us all.

The Music Project

Alzheimer's Society Music Project

I’ve since learned that the Alzheimer’s Society currently has a program called The Music Project that makes iPods available for free for Alzheimer’s patients (currently available in the Toronto and Ottawa areas only). 

If you have a loved one who suffers from dementia, whether you use an iPod or a different device, I cannot recommend enough that you take the time to pull together some music for them.  

I have discovered that by choosing music that is meaningful and from the distant past, the impact is much greater. If you can, choose music from their teens or 20’s. But choose wisely and observe the reactions, as the wrong music can also irritate for reasons you may not understand. I’ve now paired down my 100 songs to about 10 that my mother responds to most positively.

While there seems to be no conclusive proof that music will restore memory for dementia patients, numerous studies and personal accounts, including my own, seem to support the following:

Studies have shown that music’s effect on someone with dementia is striking. After 20 minutes of listening to music, people with Alzheimer’s in one study saw an immediate, measurable increase in happiness, eye contact, and talkativeness, and a decrease in fatigue. Music appears to be a unique and powerful stimulus for reaffirming personal identity and social connectedness in individuals with dementia.

P.S.  I am now back to visiting my mother on a regular basis and we’ll spend time listening to music together. I often call her on the phone to guide her to the table where the music player sits. She turns it on an we’ll listen together for a few minutes. Getting her to hang up at the end of the call? Still working on that.

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