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Q&A With Music & Memory

We caught up with Justin Russo, the Music & Memory Program Director, for this Q&A…

How did the organization Music & Memory get started?

Justin: So, Music & Memory started roughly ten years ago with the understanding that music is deeply rooted in our conscious and unconscious brains. As powerful as that idea is, it becomes even more important if the functioning of the brain is deteriorating, as occurs with dementia, as well as other types of cognitive loss. But what we’ve learned is that favorite music can awaken the brain and with it, the rich trove of memories that are associated with familiar songs or beloved pieces.

Our approach is simple and effective: We train care professionals how to set up and provide personalized music playlists for the people in their care. And these favorite songs – specifically the music from a person’s teenage years – tap deep memories not lost to dementia and can bring listeners back to life, enabling them to feel like themselves again, to converse, socialize, and stay present.

And these positive outcomes happen daily at Music & Memory certified organizations in the U.S. and worldwide..favorite music can activate cognition and improve family visits in assisted living communities, and boost spirits and decrease pain in patients in hospitals. A personalized playlist will brighten moods for individuals in adult day centers and can have a dramatic impact on people in hospice and their families during their end of life journey.

And for individuals aging in place at home and their caregivers, research has shown that favorite songs provide respite, ease transitions and reduce caregiver stress. And so if you’re listening at home today, this is something that you can do as well to support someone living with dementia.

So what are some of the benefits of listening to favorite music?

Each year we learn more and more about the therapeutic benefits of listening to favorite music.

For example, for people who have any problems with eating or nutrition issues, there’s more research emerging about swallowing and how, for people who have problems with eating, music can help by activating their cognition, their speech. This can help the person recognize food, follow cues, chew and swallow.

Favorite music can also help with agitation and anxiety. And we know that, for a lot of people who have dementia, anxiety can really drive out everyday joys. And the music can help them to feel calmer, and focus their attention on something that’s recognizable. It can reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed and confused, and it tends to connect people with the positive memories they had when they first listened to those songs.

We’re also learning that music is a non-pharmacological way to reduce chronic pain; when we can focus our brain on something other than the pain, we don’t feel it as strongly. The pleasure that comes with enjoying familiar music can actually release opioids in the brain so that we’re distracted and feeling the good, happy memories. And listeners will start to move to the music which relieves some of their stiffness they’re moving around, they’re feeling more comfortable. And so in terms of providing care for someone with dementia, quite often when people have chronic pain, it’s the reason they’re rejecting care. So if you can distract them from the pain, they’re going to be more open to receiving care.

Is there evidence to support the use of music in this way?

Yes, there are a number of studies supporting the use of favorite music – please visit the research section of our website musicandmemory.org to learn more.

There are also studies supporting the effectiveness of the Music & Memory program. In 2020, researchers from the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing at UC Davis completed the most comprehensive study of its kind on the effects of the Music & Memory program, which found that personalized music is associated with a reduction in the amount of antipsychotic medication taken by nursing home residents and fewer distressed behaviors. The three-year study of 4,107 residents in 265 California nursing homes found the use of antipsychotic drugs declined by 13% and anti-anxiety medications declined by 17% each quarter for residents with dementia using the Music & Memory program. The odds of depressive symptoms decreased 16% per quarter and the odds of reported pain decreased 17% per quarter. In addition, the number of days on medications declined by 30% and aggressive behaviors reduced by 20%. The results are published in the Journal for Post-
acute and Long-term Care Medicine (JAMDA).

The authors of the study go on to recommend Music & Memory as a means to achieve these goals. Click here to learn more.

What’s the best way to offer someone their favorite music?

If there is someone in your care that would benefit from the use of favorite music, we recommend creating a 20-40 track playlist of their favorite music and offering it for 30 minutes at a time as often as is needed or enjoyed. To ensure it’s highly personalized for greatest impact, try to find top songs from when they were 15-25 years old. We also suggest offering it proactively before medical appointments or social occasions. For more detailed guidance, please refer to our free guide: How to Make a Personalized Playlist for a Loved One at Home. Feel free to contact us if you have any questions.

How can I support Music & Memory?

If you’re interested in supporting Music & Memory, there are a number of ways to get involved listed on our website, musicandmemory.org/get-involved/. Volunteers play a vital role at Music & Memory. Since the beginning, champions of our program have advocated and promoted the benefits of personalized music, often bringing news of the Music & Memory program directly to care organizations.

Today, many dedicated individuals give their time and energy to help support our network of over 5,000 Music & Memory certified organizations in a number of different ways, often working alongside certified staff to maintain equipment, create playlists, and provide personalized music. If you are interested in working directly with those living with dementia and other cognitive challenges, this may be a good option for you. You can also donate gently used music equipment to Music & Memory, which goes directly to those in need. You can also donate directly to support Music & Memory, which relies on donations to continue its mission. Your tax-deductible gift will help us to expand our program of personalized music to reach more individuals with the healing power of music.

Our goal is to make the therapeutic use of personalized music a standard of care throughout the healthcare industry. We hope you’ll join us. If you’re interested in learning more about Music & Memory visit musicandmemory.org.