Music Helps Bring Back Memories in Elders with Dementia

By Lauren Wanko

This is what Marie is hearing through her headphones — Summer Wind. She claps along to one of her favorite tunes while Dotti dances to Cheek to Cheek. At a glance they’re doing what lots of people do when they hear music — sing or dance. But what’s so remarkable about this is that these women suffer from dementia and are very often nonverbal.

“They told us she couldn’t speak and that she really couldn’t form words. When I played Frank Sinatra for her she started telling me how she went to a Frank Sinatra concert and I thought that was so amazing,” said 13-year-old volunteer Luke Bonenfant.

When the Lakehouse Music Academy students watched the award-winning documentary “Alive Inside,” which focuses on the healing power of music and its ability to combat memory loss, they were inspired to impact those afflicted with dementia in their own community. So the teens decided to take part in the Alive Inside Foundation pilot program.

“Because music is processed and stored in every part of our brain like nothing else is, it stays with us, it stays with someone with dementia when they may seem like they don’t remember anything, the music of their life, it’s still there,” said dementia educator Francine Panella.

Before starting the program, the students were trained to work with people suffering with dementia. The Alive Inside Foundation offers resources to help the volunteers understand age, dementia, music and the brain. The students were then paired with an elder — they call them “adopted elders” — and they spent six months getting to know them and their favorite songs.

Panella wants the students to empathize with their adopted elders. For the past year, the teens worked with residents of United Methodist Communities Francis Asbury in Ocean Grove. They listen to music with these headphones.

“And why do we use headsets?” Panella asked. “Well, someone with dementia cannot absorb all this different stimulation. So, music can be playing in the room but there’s also people moving around and all these things and if their brain is not really processing properly then they barely hear the music. But when you’re putting on a headset everything else is drowned out and they are with that music.”

Bernice’s blue eyes widened and her face lit up as she listened to Cheek to Cheek. Her niece is amazed.

“It truly is awakening inside,” said Brielle resident Gloria Auch.

Student Tyler Caplan plays all of Bernice’s favorite songs.

“She’s listening to music and dancing along,” said Caplan.

“It’s a language we all speak and all know,” said Kaeleigh Spreen, a student at Lakehouse Music Academy. “The age gap doesn’t even matter because it’s just the music that brings you together.”

On this day Dotti danced and sang a few songs.

“This past week we really haven’t been getting much of a response from Dotti. So, to see her today back to her old self because of the kids and because of the music is really amazing,” Director of Memory Support Jennifer Lobell said.

Volunteer Sophia Montalbano said, “It’s really a great feeling seeing them this happy.”

Lakehouse Music Academy Instructor Pamela Flores says the students benefit from the musical experiences too.

“I think it’s a great way for them to see it’s not just about trying to be a rockstar, that they can really make a change with music,” Flores said.

“Memories kind of make us who we are. I feel like without them the meaning is kind of lost. I think being able to bring the memories back gives their life a lot of meaning back,” said Bonenfant.

As this music brings back old memories for these women, it helps to create new ones too.