Music of the heart

Documentary screening tells the story of how music can impact people with dementia

By Andrea Bodie
Wednesday, April 20, 2016

It can take you back to a special moment, a special someone or a time in your life that was particularly memorable – either because it was positive…or difficult.

Most people will have the music on in the car or when they’re puttering around the house without giving it much thought. Our lives are so infused with music, we may not be fully aware of how powerfully it can impact our mood or our health.

“Music stimulates all areas of the brain,” says the documentary Alive Inside, the story of the how Dan Cohen founded the non-profit organization Music & Memory. “The way it impacts is because of the way it goes in in the first place.”

It was on February 11th, the World Day of the Sick, that the Catholic Health Corporation of Manitoba's Compassion Project brought the idea of Music & Memory to a bigger audience. To honour this meaningful day, they hosted a screening of the Sundance Film Festival award-winning documentary, Alive Inside.

About 100 people attended the screening, and were deeply moved by the incredible difference music can make in the lives of people living with dementia. Story after story was told about people whose body language, level of awareness, speech capacity, mood and even physical discomfort could be positively impacted by listening to music that had meaning for them.

It’s a sight that Ellen Locke and Kelly Harris, recreation professionals at Misericordia Health Centre, are familiar with.

Impacted by the screening of Alive Inside a few years ago, they chose to participate in the online certification workshops Cohen offers. Since then, they’ve been offering music as an option to a variety of residents.

Each has a personal favourite story of how music has impacted lives and opened people up in ways that have been beautiful to witness. There’s Elsie, who is calmed by the music and would wear her headphones 24/7 if she could. There’s Edith, the opera lover who blossomed as she became more social, who revealed a considerable appreciation and knowledge of opera music when she first put the headphones on. There’s the music-loving mom for who music brings her back to her husband and allows them to share quiet moments of intimacy together.

“Music makes their day and brings so much happiness,” says Taylor Owen, who was formerly a recreation coordinator at Misericordia but now works at Health Sciences Centre.

Perhaps the most powerful story the group has to share about music’s power is the tale of a woman with expressive aphasia. That means the woman rarely speaks, and that when she does, her vocabulary is limited to a handful of words.

When they put the headphones on her, she starts to sing full songs.

“When it comes to talking, she can’t do it,” says Owen. “Put the music on and she has no problem singing entire songs to us. She’s even sung lyrics to us with only instrumental accompaniment and can clearly tell which song is which based on the lyrics.”

Despite its capacity to help people heal from trauma, for some, music is a trigger for loss or grief. Many have found this opens the door to cathartic moments that can offer the chance for increased connection with both caregivers and family.

One man who suffered a stroke, for example, was a musician. When he listens to music with his wife, tears come up for him. As he cries, he holds her hand and appreciates her support while he listens to music he can no longer create. At the other end of the spectrum is a person who chooses not to listen to music so it doesn’t have the chance to trigger painful memories or remind her of the people she’s lost.

While there is currently no data on if using music is help reducing the use of pain medication, iPods are kept in med rooms at the facility. For others, music is part of their care plan. Repeatedly the group has seen agitation calm, increased connection and even that music has helped people calm down enough to sleep better.

“There is currently no evidence of using less medication but we do try music once we see it’s working,” says Ellen Locke, recreation manager.

There are a couple of key elements that are important to note: the person has to have a fondness for music, and it has to be music that has meaning for them. Discovering what has meaning for a person can take some inquiry and trial and error.

Thanks to foundation support, Misericordia Health Centre has an extensive library of music that was helped considerably when CJNU (a nostalgic radio station in Winnipeg) donated a catalog of over 60,000 songs. This has been especially helpful when more obscure options like music in different languages or local tunes from years gone by are needed for a particular person.

“The biggest discovery we’ve made is how universal music is,” says Locke. “Music touches the heart, not the mind.”