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Music & Memory

New program of Central Mass JF&CS could help dementia patients connect with the people around them

By Laura Porter

WORCESTER – The Beatles or the Andrews Sisters, Gary Puckett or Bing Crosby: research shows that the music we listen to between the ages of 18 and 25 stays with us throughout our lives.

We have all heard a familiar tune on the radio and found ourselves singing along as though no time had passed at all. A few bars of music can evoke a powerful sense of place or remembered sensory detail, providing a few moments of emotional time travel.

That automatic association takes on special significance when it comes to people with dementia, giving them a connection to memories and, through that avenue, to the people around them.

That is the rationale and intention behind the Music & Memory pilot project just beginning in Central Massachusetts at Jewish Family & Children’s Service.

The approach is deceptively simple: Identify potential participants and their caretakers; interview the caretakers about the participants’ favorite music; return later with an iPod loaded with that music that the duo can then enjoy together.

Simple, yes, but the benefit for those who participate can be striking.

“The music triggers some wonderful memories and feelings for them,” says Debra Shrier, JF&CS director of community and program development in Central Massachusetts.

Shrier is running the new pilot program, which is funded by both JF&CS and the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts. All equipment is provided to participants free of charge.

Music & Memory® is a non-profit organization that trains elder care professionals and others how to provide and present recorded music to people with dementia-related illnesses as well as other challenges. When its founder, current executive director and social worker Dan Cohen, realized that he wanted to be able to listen to music from the 1960s if he ever ended up in a long-term care facility, he tried a prototype of the current program in nursing homes in the Greater New York area. MP3 players with the music of their youth seemed to help people “to reconnect with the world through music-triggered memories,” notes the website of the organization, which incorporated as a nonprofit in 2010.

The documentary “Alive and Well,” which won an Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014, captures Cohen’s interactions with a number of older people as they listen to “their” music on iPods for the first time. They respond with tears or delight, dancing or moving to the melody, some emerging from long silence.

The reasons are multifold. An expert quoted in the film’s trailer addresses the scientific, noting that, “music has more ability to activate more parts of the brain than any other stimulus.”

Dan Cohen sees the involvement of the heart and soul: “Music connects people with who they have been, who they are in their lives,” he says in the trailer. “Because what happens when you get old is all the things you’re familiar with and your identity are all just being peeled away.”

Music & Memory trains and certifies professionals at facilities and other relevant organizations across the United States. Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Boston, based in Waltham, is one of those organizations; they have been offering the program as a pilot for two years. It has been an unqualified success, benefitting approximately 20 people with dementia along with their respective caretakers. Five of the partner couples have enjoyed the music and camaraderie so much that they chose to form their own Music & Memory group, meeting regularly for a time at JF&CS in Waltham.

The program’s primary intention is to provide a person with dementia with a positive experience and access, even if brief, to a seminal time in their lives.

At the same time, says Kathy Burnes, JF&CS Division Director of Services for Older Adults in Waltham, “it doesn’t work unless there is a listening partner. The point is for that person to ideally benefit in some way as well. Both the person with dementia and the person who is the listening partner get something out of it.”

Shrier, too, stresses the dual nature of the program, which helps the two partners to “find other things to enjoy together. It is social as well.”

Music & Memory dovetails with another critical priority of JF&CS: Dementia Friends Initiative Massachusetts. Dementia Friends Initiative is a global organization, started by the Alzheimer’s Society in Great Britain. It has developed one-hour training sessions to teach “champions,” or dementia friends, more about dementia; those who are trained go on to train others. They can then “help everyone in the community understand dementia, how it affects people, and how we can all make a difference in the lives of people living with dementia,” said Shrier.

JF&CS is currently facilitating Dementia Friends trainings all over the state, including in the Worcester area.

The goal here, in addition to spreading awareness of the illness, is also to identify more people in the community who have dementia.

“There are a lot of individuals and families dealing with the issue of dementia, and it’s only going to grow,” says Kathy Burnes. “A lot of focus is on the research, but people are living every day with this disease. We’re looking forward to bringing awareness and engaging people in ways that give people purpose and are positive.”

Shrier hopes that the Music & Memory pilot will complement this effort, helping to identify more of those in the Central Massachusetts Jewish community who are in this situation.

“We don’t know enough about who is living with dementia,” she says. “But we know that there are people who are out there who have dementia who would enjoy [Music & Memory].”

She has already taken the first step to start the new Memory & Music pilot program, contacting Central Mass. synagogues, Jewish organizations and those who work professionally with Jewish older adults to ask if they know of anyone in their congregations or communities for whom it might be appropriate. Once again, a participant must have a consistent care partner who can help with equipment and share the experience.

Shrier will visit the partner groups at their homes three times: once to identify favorite music; again to deliver and help set up the iPod; and finally, to complete an evaluation.

The pilot program will run through the end of this fiscal year, and she is ready to begin:

“As soon as I hear from someone I’m ready to set that [first] appointment.”

CAP: Steve, a Music & Memory participant, sharing his musical interests with his grandsons.

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