For every Baby Boomer who knows what comes next after, “Here we come, walkin’ down the street…” there is a member of the World War II generation to whom, “I’ll Be Seeing You” reminds them of empty days and nights waiting for a loved one. The power of music and what it does to bring back memories is undeniable. Let’s look at some of the science and the implication for activity directors.
That is the unmistakable power of music to fire up the brain’s recall abilities. Gene D. Cohen, MD, PhD, director of the Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University and former acting director of the National Institute on Aging, explains how the brain reacts to a familiar piece of music.
“Memories are created when clusters of hundreds or thousands of neurons fire in a unique pattern,” Cohen writes in his book The Mature Mind.
He further explains that when you hear a catchy song your brain neurons light up. Later, when you hear the same song again, those original memory patterns are automatically strengthened. “The more often a particular pattern is stimulated, the more sensitive and permanent are the connections between the neurons in the pattern,” Cohen writes. “Not only does learning link neurons in new patterns, it also stimulates neurons to grow new connections.”
Cohen urges activity directors of retirement communities to implement arts programs because national studies have proven seniors involved in the arts improve physically and mentally.
A study conducted with the Levine School of Music in Washington DC studied 300 seniors – half enrolled in an arts program once a week and half not enrolled - over a two year period. The study reviewed the health and social functioning of the participants before, at one year and at the end of the study. The results, Cohen reports, those who attended the arts program had better health while those who did not attend saw their health deteriorate.
In addition, the arts group used fewer medications, felt less depressed, were less lonely, had higher morale and were more socially active, Cohen wrote.
As a musician playing for seniors I see the power of music to recall memories every day! The transforming power of music works for those with and without cognitive disabilities due to dementia or other brain diminishing conditions.
At one assisted living community there was a man who wasn’t interested in any activities. After about two months of my playing, he started watching me, listening, but still didn’t join in. The third month, to everyone’s surprise, he started singing “Amazing Grace”.
Every time I returned he sang a little more. In six months he was singing all the time! Through music, he came out of his withdraw and became engaged in activities again.
The National Institute of Nursing Research has found that listening to music reduces patient pain levels. The National Institute of Education and Health Sciences found music tempo can improve mood and heart rate.
When selecting music, it is critical you remember that while we learn new songs all our lives, the music with the strongest memory connections are: songs we loved in our teens and twenties and songs we heard are parents sing as we were growing up! Use this guideline to select music for your residents. And when you do you will also be meeting their individual wants and needs from an activity. And that is a key component of culture change.
When a song reminds you of your mother doing the dishes, or your freshman dance in high school, or your first drive in a new car, the music is also firing up your brain, forming new connections, and keeping your brain healthy.