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Dementia patients come alive hearing favorite music [Senior Circles]

One evening my sister, Mary, called me, all excited about a news item she saw on ABC's World News with Diane Sawyer. Mary said that it was both sad and beautiful at the same time. The episode, in Sawyer's "America Strong" segment, was titled, "iPods Awaken Memories through Music For Those with Alzheimer's," reported by Byron Pitts.

Mary and I have often discussed dementia and Alzheimer's and how it has affected people we know. I had to see this news episode so, later I watched the segment online at

I was amazed at the remarkable transformation of the people with dementia or Alzheimer's after listening to their favorite music playlist on their iPods. Before they were solitary and expressionless, but after they listened to their favorite music from their youth, their faces lit up; they began talking about the music; singing to the music; and even dancing. One man liked Big Band, another barbershop. One of the women enjoyed dancing to her favorite Andy Williams song, "Canadian Sunset."

The man behind this innovative approach is Dan Cohen, social worker, who is the founding executive director of Music & Memory Inc.

Dan is spreading his iPod program to nursing homes, rehab facilities, assisted living, hospices and other elder facilities in this country and abroad. He is looking for volunteers to help him accomplish his goal of getting one million iPods donated and in the hands of people who need them and can benefit from their own personalized playlist of music. Many users are moving to smartphones for their music, so the supply of gently used iPods is increasing as people migrate away from them.

Collecting gently used iPods and raising awareness of Music & Memory's program would be a great service project or community outreach for schools and churches. It would definitely be a wonderful project for senior centers to pursue, "seniors helping seniors." Also, caregivers of those with any type of memory impairment, be it dementia, Alzheimer's, mild cognitive impairment, should give their loved ones the opportunity to come alive through their favorite music and their memories of yesteryear. For information on how to accomplish these efforts, go to There you will also find detailed instructions on how to donate new music devices or to donate a gently used iPod.

Just to reinforce the positive affect music can have on an older person with dementia (or any cognitive impairment) is the story of Henry who is in his 90s. Henry has had dementia for at least a decade and had barely said a word to anyone until Music and Memory set up its iPod program at his nursing home.

In a video, you see Henry in his wheel chair slumped over and almost lifeless. A caregiver greets him and he is mostly unresponsive. Then she puts on his headset to his iPod, "his music as she calls it" and you immediately see Henry's face light up; he is talking, singing, moving his body to the music. He is reacting positively to his favorite music.

The caregiver takes away his iPod after a while and a social worker starts asking Henry questions about his music, his favorite performer [Cab Calloway], his favorite Cab song and he starts to sing it. He answers in detail all the questions put to him. The last question is, "What does the music do for you? He had a long answer but the best part to me was when he said, "It gives me the feeling of love."

The memories that Henry's musical favorites stirred in him were not lost to dementia. They brought him back to life and allowed him to converse, socialize and be in the present.

We all have songs that bring back memories of earlier days. I always have my doo-wop music from the 1950s in my car CD player and listen to it whenever I am driving. Selections often bring back special memories from the past. It is probably not a bad idea for all of us, whether we have memory problems or not, to keep music in our lives and keep "alive" with music.


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