December 2016

Music & Memory: Older adults with memory issues find hope in a song

Susan Xander dances with a resident, responding to the impact music can have on memory.

Most of us have had the experience: Listening to a song from our past can vividly recall memories from days gone by. 

Now, thanks to Music & Memory, a non-profit organization that bases its efforts on extensive neuroscience research, personalized music is being brought into the lives of older adults through digital music technology.

At Manatawny Manor, Pottstown, Pennsylvania, residents facing the challenges of memory loss are benefiting from the music program, made possible locally by generous gifts from St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Chester Springs and the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Coatesville. 

“We know the part of the brain that stores music memories is often less affected by dementia than other parts of the brain,” explains Susan B. Xander, former dementia services manager at Manatawny Manor and now a Luther Crest staff member. 

When the resident heard music, her countenance changed, she smiled and started singing and dancing.

“Music can transport an individual to another time and place, often unlocking fond memories from our youth or special events in our lives.”

According to Mary Kwiatkowski, lead volunteer for the local Music & Memory program, iPods with customized playlists have been created for more than 40 residents, with that number increasing every week. 

“Residents who have received iPods have ranged in age from their fifties to their nineties and the music they listen to has ranged from Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley to the Beatles, Johnny Cash and Duran Duran. Most of them listen to music as part of their daily routine.”

Residents who use their personalized music talk more with family, friends and staff, become more engaged in socializing events and take more responsibility for caring for themselves, according to staff. They also tend to become less anxious and more relaxed.

One of the first residents interviewed for the program was “Jane,” says Xander. When she first moved into Manatawny Manor’s personal care community, she was outgoing, proud of her career in the medical profession and adored by her granddaughter. She was quick to make friends and was the leader of the “walking pack.” 

Above all, she loved Elvis Presley and his music. “Sadly, over time, she became less engaged with her family, friends and her environment, became less mobile and took less care of herself,” says Xander. “The music volunteer worked with Jane to determine her favorite Elvis music and loaded that music onto an iPod Shuffle. When Jane put her headset on and heard her Elvis music, her countenance changed, she smiled and started singing and dancing!”

Another resident, “Joe,” had played saxophone in a swing band in the 1940s. The volunteers interviewing Joe could not find a Big Band-era song he didn’t know and he was beaming as he listened to music he hadn’t heard in years. This experience of listening to Joe was equally joyful for the volunteers, says Xander.

A resident gets "in the groove" with the music he loves.

“Residents living with dementia at Manatawny Manor are very important to us and we raise money and recruit volunteers to offer these residents options that will bring joyful engagement into their lives and the lives of their families and friends,” she says. 

“Through the program we started here at Manatawny, we want to make the information available to everyone in the greater Pottstown community for the benefit of people everywhere. We hope to become a source of helpful, relevant information in the area of caring for people facing similar memory-related illnesses.”

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