Medical Monday: Music & Memory

Medical Monday: Reducing the stress of caregiving with music - by Dan Cohen

With so many reports about the ubiquity of dementia and the lack of a cure, it’s easy to get discouraged. Caregivers feel they are facing an uphill battle. Respite is often minimal; burnout and associated health issues are common.

But there is something that can reduce anxiety, distress, loneliness, and depression for persons with dementia and their caregivers.

Providing music that holds special meaning for the listener taps into emotional memory, which is still very much intact, even for those with end-stage dementia. Incredibly, our response to music is not diminished by short-term memory loss. Listening to our favorite songs on portable digital players– when we want, where we want, and for how long we want — contributes to independence and a sense of well-being for both the individual with dementia and the caregiver.

Thousands of assisted living communities, hospices, hospitals, adult day programs and home care companies currently make sure those they serve have access to their favorite music. Twenty- five states so far have made this approach public policy because they consider it the best tool they have to improve quality of life. More than anything else, when we have the music we love, we experience pleasure and joy.

No matter how advanced one’s dementia, as long as we can identify music that holds personal meaning from their youth, the odds are good that this will work.

Commonly seen benefits include an enhanced ability to communicate, greater acceptance of care, fewer falls, reduced or eliminated sundowning, as well as lowered use of antipsychotic, anti-anxiety and other mood/behavior-altering drugs.

Caregivers benefit, too. They regain valuable time for themselves and can relax, knowing that the music is working. Caregivers tell us that having even 20 minutes to themselves when a spouse is fully engaged with their favorite music is so appreciated. We often receive feedback that personalized music enables them to focus on deepening their relationship with their family member. They also report benefitting from less stress.

The key to making personalized music work is identifying favorite songs from an individual’s formative years. These specific songs will form a more effective playlist than one based just on genre. Creating a playlist may be challenging when you’re assisting individuals who cannot communicate easily. But by speaking with families to learn about an individual’s favorite artists, you’ll have a great starting point and will be well on your way to discovering the specific, favorite songs that can make a real impact on quality of life. One of the benefits of personalized music is portability. If someone with dementia has a music player loaded with favorite songs, that playlist can travel with them throughout the day to ease transitions, such as waking, doctor’s visits, eating or getting ready for bed. And the playlist can also travel throughout their care journey, from a private home to an adult day program, nursing home, hospital visits and beyond. The benefits will follow.

You can make this happen for the people in your life with dementia. Introduce Music & Memory to administrators at your local nursing home or care organization. If you are a caregiver at home, read our guide “How to Create a Playlist for Your Loved One at Home” on how to get a playlist started for the person in your life with dementia. Music & Memory supports families and caregivers at home by working through many dementia support organizations across the US and Canada to enable caregivers faced with the daily challenges of the disease to connect, communicate and keep their relative at home longer.  You can watch the magic that happens when caregivers and their relatives use personalized music throughout the video posted above.

Our goal is to make Music & Memory a standard of care — and you can help us reach our goal. The sooner you create playlists for those in your care, the sooner we will realize the benefits.

Dan Cohen of Music and Memory

Dan Cohen is the founder and executive director of Music & Memory, Inc., a non-profit organization that provides education, training and support for more than 5,000 health care organizations in every state and nine other countries. For more on Music & Memory, please see

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