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Music and memories

April 30, 2015
by Davis Park
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Davis Park

I’m not a devout Connie Francis fan, but there’s something about her song “Among My Souvenirs” that spawns an intensely warm memory. Back when it wasn’t illegal to leave children under the age of six unattended in a vehicle, my parents often would drive into a store parking lot, pop in an 8-track tape, and tell my younger sister and me to wait while they ran a quick errand.

With the dreamy melody of Connie’s voice piping through the car’s speakers, we played inside our Volvo station wagon. The familiar smells in the car and the texture of the soft seats are still so salient in my memory that whenever I hear that song, I’m instantly whisked back to my childhood happiness.

We all have similar recollections of our past conjured by certain melodies and songs—specific and unique to us. These experiences tend to stay with us forever, even as we struggle with cognitive decline through age. Musical recognition, researchers say, is one of the last abilities that we’re able to retain through late-stage dementia.

The Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing (FPCIW) wanted to research solutions that could support memory care for older adults who are socially withdrawn, non-responsive or anxious. We came across Music and Memory, an innovative yet accessible and simple program built on the premise that individualized playlists can stimulate memories and engage people in late-stage dementia. Backed by many research studies, Music and Memory is an evidence-based approach that harnesses the use of music players, such as iPods or other MP3 players, with personalized musical selections to support memory care and help people age with dignity.  

We set out to pilot this program in memory care environments, which often struggle to engage older adults who have late-stage dementia. We believe that innovation plays an important role in enhancing each individual’s ability to “live life my way” in the place he or she calls home, and our goal is to harness technology solutions that support and enhance wellbeing and help each resident to thrive in mind, body and spirit. 

FPCIW ran a four-week pilot of Music and Memory at Villa Gardens, a Front Porch retirement community in Pasadena, Calif., and at the S. Mark Taper Foundation Adult Day Healthcare Center operated by St. Barnabas Senior Services in Los Angeles, which serves a diverse community of low-income seniors. The populations at both communities were composed of participants living with some form of dementia, and we worked closely with family members and caregivers to help us identify specific music meaningful to each participant.

To measure the effect of the Music and Memory program, we used a mood scale to reference how we observed individual residents in the program before and after listening to music. The intervention was tracked for a total of 140 instances within the two communities. We found that, overall, an individual’s calmness and cheerfulness improved when listening to personalized music. In addition, the participants responded to their musical selections by opening their eyes, smiling and even dancing.

Our trials suggested that the Music and Memory program was most effective in easing and reducing pain (by 66.7 percent). For one particular resident, a staff member observed, “She seemed focus on the music and did not complain of pain during her session as she usually does.”

Both communities also found that the personalized music project was effective with disruptive verbal/physical behaviors. At the Villa Gardens Care Center, residents involved in the program were less combative and agitated in the morning during activities of daily living such as bathing, dressing and personal hygiene routine. At the St. Barnabas site, the health director noted: “In some cases, those listening to the music seemed to calm people who were distressed, and we have observed a very good response from some of our patients who most often demonstrate disruptive behaviors such as wandering and aggressiveness.” Some staff members also have noted that the music program has been helping with sleep—a crucial factor in memory care settings for residents who are anxious or disruptive. 

Sometimes, the disruptive behavior of one or two people can affect an entire group. When we used the individualized playlists among those individuals to help soothe them, we noticed a marked difference in the social environment and behavior in the communities: even the other members were more relaxed and calm.

We’ve been so impressed with the results of this pilot that we’re currently planning to set up additional Music and Memory programs at other Front Porch communities and senior-serving organizations.

At some point in my life, I may no longer remember Connie Francis, but I hope that I recall those moments as a child in the car and the lyrics and music of “Among My Souvenirs.”

[Author’s note: The Music and Memory program was recently featured in the film documentary Alive Inside.]

Davis Park is the director of the Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing, a technology development arm of the not-for-profit Front Porch organization. FPCIW explores innovative uses of technology to empower individuals to live well, especially in their later years. He can be reached at