Have you ever strummed a guitar, played a piano or sang a melody? Most people have. But you may not have realized playing music was changing your brain and impacting your memory.
At Chicago Methodist Senior Services, here’s how playing music influences older adults’ memory and mood.
How playing music improves memory for older adults
At Chicago Methodist Senior Services’ Hartwell Place, residents gather in the living room on Monday mornings to sing together. Ana Lebron, Community Life Coordinator at Hartwell, greets residents while holding her ukelele. She gets a sense of the energy in the room, before choosing a crowd favorite to sing: “Home On the Range.” As she begins playing her ukulele and singing the classic Western folk song, over a dozen residents join her; one resident follows along on the piano.
Lebron sees residents who experience memory loss light up while singing some of their favorite songs from youth. They sing each lyric, word for word, and during that song, residents are present and joyful.
The late Oliver Sacks, M.D., neurologist and author of “Musicophilia,” said listening to sentimental songs can help people with memory loss remember the times in their lives when they first heard the music. Through the music, they can gain entry to memories and emotions that were previously inaccessible to them.
Another study from the University of California, Davis examined brain patterns of people listening to familiar music. The results found specific brain regions linked emotions and autobiographical memories — which are recollections of specific episodes, like celebrating the holidays in the winter or the first dance at a wedding — are triggered by music.
How playing music improves mood for seniors
One CMSS resident preferred isolation and never wanted to come out of her room. We introduced her to the piano in the community and she rediscovered a love of music.
Henri Harps, Music Programming Coordinator at CMSS, knew the resident was quite the piano player. He offered her a deal: If she would teach him how to improve his piano playing, he’d help her transcribe early 20th-century jazz music she loved. The two of them bonded and spent hours together on the piano. The resident became more sociable, and her personality blossomed — all thanks to a few keys on the piano.
Music brings out the best in people. For older adults, especially people experiencing memory loss, it can enhance mood, improve self-consciousness and help combat other side effects of memory loss like depression and anxiety.
Music gives people a sense of community, purpose and a new avenue to communicate. We see this every day at CMSS, which is why we’re committed to expanding our music programming.
How CMSS uses music programming to enrich residents’ lives
Our new Sounds of Healing program allows us to partner with local music organizations, host live performances, integrate therapeutic music into seniors’ care plans, and most importantly, bring the joy of music into the lives of our residents and employees.
We’re also excited to announce the launch of a Songs by Heart research study conducted by the Northwestern Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center and the Northwestern Bienen School of Music. The study will examine the positive benefits of individualized therapeutic music on older adults with varying levels of memory loss.
Subscribe to our monthly newsletter to get more updates on Sounds of Healing, the Songs by Heart research study and our other music programming.