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Music magically awakening the happy memories of people with dementia

Asian elderly couple dancing together while listen to music in kitchen at home, sweet couple enjoy love moment while having fun when relaxed at home. Lifestyle senior family relax at home concept.

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The power of music is being used to help dementia patients rediscover forgotten memories, and awakening their ‘happy place’.

“Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory,” is a documentary following social worker, Dan Cohen, who launched a campaign to bring iPods and music therapy to nursing homes in the US.

One of the central characters he works with is a 90-something Alzheimer’s patient named Henry Dryer, who was featured in a video posted online that went viral in 2012, with nearly 10 million views.

The film begins with a videoof Henry looking largely unresponsive to the outside world. Then he was given a pair of headphones to listen to Cab Calloway, his favourite artist. The music energizes him, awakens him and helps bring back old memories.

“Music is inseparable from emotion,” says neurologist Dr Oliver Sacks. “So, it’s not just a physiological stimulus. If it works at all, it will call the whole and many different parts of their brain and the memories and emotions which go with it.”

Dan Cohen explains he got the idea when listening to a journalist talking about how iPods are ubiquitous, they’re everywhere. And he thought, well, young people all have them, many adults, but why not a nursing home?

After Henry listens to a piece music, he is asked, “What does music do to you?” He replies:

“It gives me the feeling of love, romance, because right now the world needs to come into music, singing. You’ve got beautiful music here. Beautiful, oh, lovely. And I feel a band of love, dream.”

Dr Sacks says that with advanced dementia, when people no longer can recognize their own family members, they stop speaking. But when they hear music that’s familiar from their youth, because those memories are preserved, they come alive. They connect with that. It’s a direct sort of a backdoor to that failing cognitive system right to the emotional system, which is really very much intact. And what we love—what music does, the way we connect with music is really very much emotional and visceral.

Nursing home recreational therapist Yvonne Russell is interviewed in the film. She says, “I have one resident that barely opened her eyes. She didn’t respond. As much as I tried in over two years, no matter what I tried, massage wouldn’t work. Nothing worked. But when we got introduced to the iPods and the family told me the things that she liked, it was amazing once we put the iPod on her. She started shaking her feet. She started moving her head. Her son was just amazed.”

Yvonne explains, “This woman was lying in a foetal position with her eyes closed. She was bedridden. And the music comes on, and she appears comatose at first, but she then starts shaking, writhing to the music. Her head’s moving. Her body is moving. Even though her eyes are closed and she’s lying down in this foetal position, it’s just really moving to watch.”

We all feel music is magic, says the film’s narrator, but for those with dementia it can be a back door into the mind.

Apparently, the parts of the brain which are involved in remembering and responding to music are not affected too much by dementia. Part of the reason why music memories are so strong is to do with the way music enters our brains in the first place. It has more ability to activate the brain than any other stimulus. Music is a cultural invention, which makes use of many parts of the brain used for other purposes, not just auditory parts, such as the brain’s visual parts, emotional parts, and the parts that control co-ordination and movement.

The video of Henry’s ‘awakening’ was posted on Reddit and went viral. Thousands of people watched and some started sharing their own stories of using music to awaken their loved ones.

The narrator says we (society) has been afraid of people with dementia and of entering nursing homes, because we think we have nothing to give. But music awakening the memory of one 90 year old man reminds us that we do have something to give. All we have to do is ask them, “What’s your favourite song?” and we can give them the gift of music.

In hundreds of care facilities throughout the U.S. and Canada, Music & Memory is helping thousands of individuals living with chronic cognitive and physical impairments to reconnect with family, friends and caregivers.

Now this remarkable program, Music & Memory, will be available to Australia in October, exclusively delivered by the Arts Health Institute.

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