Don’t we all love music? I know I do, and there always seems to be a song to fit every occasion. Music to me always seemed to be a bit magical; it can alter moods, change opinions, and more. But what if I told you the “more” was a medical application—that music could somehow add to the scientific and medical community? Nice! Well, it can, and as of 2006, former social worker Dan Cohen discovered that by listening to certain songs, Alzheimer's and Dementia patients experienced triggers in their memories.
Cohen started an organization called Music and Memory in 2010, whose main focus was collecting new or used iPods to donate to various hospitals and rehabilitation centers across the United States. There are over five million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease today, and so far, Cohen has managed to accumulate 10,000 ipods, which falls short of his goal of one million to be gathered over the course of Music and Memory’s life. Cohen began his journey with one thought: “Someday, if I end up in a nursing home, I want to be able to listen to my favorite 60’s music.” So Cohen began volunteering at a local New York nursing home in Greater, NY, and as part of his volunteer work spent time creating personalized playlists for the patients, many of which consisted of songs from the patients’ pasts. He found, as the patients continued listening to his playlists, that some patients, suffering from Dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, began regaining their memories; slowly, but intact.
With this new information, Cohen took the initiative; he received funding from the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation in 2008, and with the proceeds brought 200 ipods to four other New York facilities to test his discovery on a wider range of subjects. The results were conclusive; Cohen had discovered a “prototype” for curing memory loss! Two years later, Cohen created Music and Memory in order to strengthen this revitalization process. In April of 2012, Music and Memory took a big step in raising awareness for its work. A documentary titled "Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory" was played at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. Said documentary depicted Henry, one of the patients that the musical process had been successful with, listening to Cab Calloway songs, one of Henry’s favorite artists, and slowly having his memories come back to him. The video was a hit! It went viral, gaining more than 11 million views, and with this newfound popularity, awareness of Music and Memory skyrocketed.
Beginning in 2013, Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services was the first of the state-run facilities to begin a Music & Memory Initiative, making it possible for first one hundred, then one hundred and fifty more nursing homes to become “Music & Memory Certified Care Facilities”. In the years since this launch, more states have followed Wisconsin on the path to making Music and Memory an accepted program nationwide. Besides the United States, Music and Memory has found a foothold in Canada, Europe, and other countries.
Now I’m sure you’re all wondering, how reliable is this link between music and memory? What’s the science behind it? Well, I’m here to tell you that in fact there are five reasons why music helps patients regain their past memories. The first one is that music arouses emotions that bring back memories. According to the Music and Memory site, it “brings back the feeling of life when nothing else can.” With daily doses of certain types of music relevant to their past, patients will regain the memories most associated with those songs. Songs most frequently played with patients are ones from specific time periods correlating to their youth. The second is that musical aptitude and musical appreciation are two abilities that remain with the patient after other abilities have gone. The third is that music can bring back a patient's ability to feel emotions and physical closeness. In later stages of dementia, patients have the possibility of losing the ability to share emotions. Through music, these patients can often remember dances, or make new ones, and, as the Music and Memory site claims, “dancing can lead to hugs, kisses, and touching, which brings security and memories.” The fourth is that while the patients sing along to their favorite songs, they engage different areas of the brain that can trigger memories. Singing activates the left side of the brain, and listening to music activates the right side. With both sides of the brain being stimulated, the patients “exercise” more of their brain than they usually would, which can speed up the healing process. The fifth is that music can shift moods and manage stress. Listening to music requires almost no mental processing, so Alzheimer and dementia patients, with what little brainpower they have to spare, can channel it into music, which is a very promising way of regaining memories. Some of the most popular songs used when trying this type of therapy on memory-loss patients are: songs from the movie The Sound of Music, “When You Wish Upon a Star” (from the Disney movie Pinocchio), and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (from the movie The Wizard of Oz).
I became involved in Music and Memory through the community service club at my school, WATCH, which stands for We Are The Community Helpers. At the beginning of every year, we convene as a club to discuss which organizations we will involve ourselves in throughout the rest of the school year, and our club leader had heard of Music and Memory through her grandmother and suggested it to be one of our main focus points. Our club went on the music and memory website and read their mission statement, which is: By providing access and education, and by creating a network of MUSIC & MEMORY℠ Certified elder care facilities, we aim to make this form of personalized therapeutic music a standard of care throughout the health care industry.
We then proceeded to hold an iPod drive at our school, giving a presentation about the Music and Memory organization in an all-school assembly. The results were tremendous; we raised over 200 ipods from our upper school alone, and were proud to be able to send in our collection to Music and Memory. This was three years ago, and since then we have been checking in on the organization from time to time, only to see that Music and Memory has grown with each year. They have grown from having next to no donors in 2010, to having thousands of people donating ipods and money today to help battle memory loss diseases. Some of the more well-known donors to Music and Memory are: The Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, The Silicon Valley Community Foundation, The Artemis Rising and Phoebe Snow Foundation, The Kendeda Fund, May and Stanley Smith Charitable Trust, Bose, The Stavros Niarchos Foundation, The Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation, Inc., The Long Island Community Foundation, The Healthcare Foundation of NJ, Argus, The Good People Fund, and The Consumer Technology Association Foundation.
There are many ways that you, the reader, can help too. Spreading the word about Music and Memory and telling your peers, teachers, family, friends, etc. about Music and Memory’s mission statement will stimulate more interest in the cause. Holding iPod drives in your school or community, and sending them in to Music and Memory are a very helpful contributions to the organization, as iPods are expensive and most of the money-based donations made to the organization go towards hiring staff and advertising in order to gain more iPods, money, and donations. Other ways you can help Music and Memory are to establish an iTunes library, in which one can share songs legally, set up personal playlists, and engage families and friends in building a community based on advocacy for the organization.
Although WATCH helps many different types of organizations, Music and Memory was the one that has really stuck with me ever since we first began looking into it three years ago. I have had four members of my family suffer from dementia, and having seen the effects of a memory-loss disease first-hand, let me tell you, it’s a depressing sight: for example, not having your grandpa recognize you after having been very close with him for as long as you can remember. It’s life changing, and not in the conventional sense of the word. And although Music and Memory has made huge advancements in the field of memory loss, it is not to be forgotten that dementia and Alzheimer's are very, very serious mental diseases. That’s why I’m reaching out to you, the reader, for help. Involve yourself in Music and Memory and other organizations like it. Make an effort to help slow the effects these heart- breaking diseases have on the minds of the innocent. And if you too are the grandchild, friend, or family member of a dementia or Alzheimer’s patient, show your community how only a little bit of aid can halt a person’s deterioration into oblivion, and welcome them back to the world of the living. I wish that Music and Memory had been as advanced and widespread as it is now when my family members were battling dementia, but it eases my heart to know that the millions of other victims of these terrible diseases can, and will be helped by efforts from Music and Memory, and hopefully, you the reader.