Students launch music outreach program to reawaken memories for seniors

March 12, 2013

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Ian Nutting and Brittany Spong have seen the power of music. Nutting, a senior music and philosophy major, and Spong, a senior music education major, understand how music is a universal language, affecting everyone on some level. Inspired by their own work with local senior citizens and Dan Cohen, executive director of Music and Memory, and his documentary, Alive Inside: The Story Of Music And Memory, the two decided there needed to be other ways to share the gift of music in their own communities.

What began as a conversation between the students and Cohen after his film screening at Texas Lutheran University in September 2012, has turned into a campaign spearheaded by Service Through Music (STM)—an organization that seeks to enrich the lives of others by incorporating musical performances and music technology into local nursing homes.

Through STM's own fundraising efforts, it has been able to partner with Guadalupe Valley Nursing Home in Seguin to equip their residents with 20 iPods, headphones, chargers and iTunes gift cards through the new Seguin branch of Cohen’s Music & Memory program. Initially, each resident in the memory unit was equipped with his or her own iPod and a playlist of music featuring their personal favorites. This way, they can listen to music year-round without waiting for an outside group to come perform.

“We wanted to use our talents to impact lives,” Nutting said. “Music is processed in so many ways. Even if a person has dementia or other signs of memory loss, they still receive emotion from a song. At a recent performance, there was a woman who wasn’t really engaged throughout the concert and I knew she had some sort of memory loss. When we started playing Amazing Grace, she perked up in her chair and at the end told me, ‘I’m found.’ That song, for whatever reason, awakened her. It was very powerful.”

According to Cohen’s website for his nonprofit group Music & Memory, their research shows consistent results that residents are happier and more social, their relationships among staff, residents and family deepen, everyone benefits from a calmer, more supportive social environment, and staff regain valuable time previously lost to behavior management issues. The organization also concludes there is growing evidence that a personalized music program gives professionals one more tool in their effort to reduce reliance on psychotropic medications like Xanax, Ativan and other antidepressants.

Guadalupe Valley Nursing Home Activity Director Alyce Platz said the residents and staff are excited about the Music & Memory program.

“We have known and seen that our residents tend to respond well to music,” Platz said. “Alzheimer’s and dementia are like walls. They block the brain and our patients have trouble remembering short-term memories and events. However, they can remember things from many years ago and music seems to step over that wall and helps them remember a specific memory where maybe a certain song was playing. We also really hope this new program improves our residents’ alertness and reduces the amount of state-mandated medication we give them.”

The program at Guadalupe Valley is a pilot program, and if successful, will extend to other partner facilities throughout the nation.

“Music is very personal because whether you're singing, playing or listening, it is an art that is interpreted and appreciated differently by all people,” Spong said. “I remember one woman at a recent concert who I was sitting with. She wasn't really listening or participating, but she kept fidgeting with her shirt and mumbling. Finally, I was able to make out that she was mumbling in Spanish. Two of our members got up to play a Danzon—a style of music fusing African and Latin beats. She immediately lit up. Her eyes were open, she started talking and I could tell she enjoyed it. That was a moment that made me see just how important programs like this can be.”

Both Nutting and Spong see STM continuing its success and one day branching out into surrounding communities.

“It makes me proud that we’ve started this program here in Seguin and that other students have expressed interest in starting a similar program in the areas where they live,” Nutting said. “It’s a testament to the TLU music department and their dedication to seeing that music is brought to the community. Sometimes, unfortunately, our society doesn’t think about our elderly population and how a program like this could benefit them. It’s powerful to see their reaction to STM and to know we’re helping them make a connection through music.”

Check our Service Through Music on Facebook. Read about Service Through Music's beginnings in the March 2011 issue of Torch.

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