As the population continues to age, and as we all try to imagine what our lives will be like – mind, body and spirit – as we enter the autumn and winter of our lives – tremendous progress is being made in understanding Alzheimer’s and many forms of dementia.
Even as we become more forgetful or experience cognitive declines beyond forgetfulness, we still retain our ability to feel joy and happiness, and enlightened communities serving older adults are increasingly implementing “Memory Care” programs that include music, paintings, sculpture, garden design, film, dance and more.
Recent research studies are now proving the impact of these programs. For example, an April 2018 study reports that “objective evidence from brain imaging shows personally meaningful music is an alternative route for communicating with patients who have Alzheimer’s disease.” The research, published by a team at University of Utah Health in Salt Lake City in The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease, provided evidence that familiar music “may facilitate attention, reward and motivation, which in turn makes it more possible to manage emotional distress in Alzheimer’s.”
Another 2018 study, published in conjunction with Dr. Stephen Post of Stony Brook University in Dementia: The International Journal of Social Research and Practice presented data indicating “personal music intervention improves swallowing in individuals with advanced dementia, making eating easier and potentially diminishing reliance on feeding tubes and PEG intervention.”
And last year, Brown University published an article in The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, comparing behavioral and psychological resident outcomes before and after a Music & Memory program. Ninety-eight nursing homes were studied along with 98 matched-pair comparisons and proved that discontinuation of antipsychotic medications increased in Music & Memory facilities (23.5% to 24.4%), while decreasing among comparison facilities (24.8% to 20.0%).
Facilities using Music & Memory also demonstrated increased rates of reduction in behavioral problems (50.9% to 56.5%) versus comparison facilities (55.8% to 55.9%). Implication for practice concluded that “effective, non-medicalized, low-cost interventions such as Music & Memory, are critical to address the needs of the growing ADRD population.”
With scientific evidence in, and our intuitive understanding that music from one’s culture or past can trigger positive responses in those challenged by cognitive decline, we are now seeing technologies evolve, including the use of artificial intelligence, that can personalize programs for individuals, based on their backgrounds their preferences, and their ongoing response to specific stimulation.
A very specific song can help people living with dementia access memories, emotions and connections that their families and caregivers may assume they are no longer able to grasp.
I was fortunate to visit one amazing facility in the NYC metro area where I live, United Hebrew in Westchester County, thanks to a colleague who has been working on memory care innovations with their team.
They, like other enlightened providers, integrate music into many programs, and integrate visual art as well, including an art gallery on their campus.
Music and visual art in modern memory care can help soothe older adults, often opening new ways for them to communicate and express themselves, and lead to beautiful, calm moments between the staff and patients, and family members.
The challenge, as the older population grows, is how to deliver personalized, highly effective experiences with music and the arts, which is where technology can come in. Imagine a system where content is curated for each patient, enjoyed by that patient, and improved over time as patterns are recognized.
This can assist in the patient experience by providing support to often limited caregiving staff and can also involve family members and friends who often feel helpless.
Imagine a day when those loved ones can help “program” experiences, including photographs, videos, special songs, poems and more to bring joy “on demand” in highly personal and effective ways.
We will continue to explore this exciting area, blending technology and the arts to create new awakenings unlike anything we could have imagined before.