By: McKenna Selissen, MT-BC
Life Engagement Coordinator & Music Therapist at Gianna Homes, Minnesota

“When words fail, music speaks.”  These powerful words reflect the impact music has on many of us throughout the course of our lives, especially as we age. It can be used to improve a bad mood, relieve stress, or help ease someone to sleep. In addition, music will also accompany important events such as celebrations, births, and deaths. It can bring us back to these special moments and help us to remember them in full.   Music illuminates a path on our journey here on earth. Research suggests that music activates a broad network in the brain rather than a single “music area”. This makes it possible for individuals with memory loss to sing and play music even while experiencing rapid cognitive decline. Music is such an important tool in supporting and maintaining memory recall in individuals with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Specifically, music therapy can bring patients with memory loss back to a certain place and time in their lives. It can illuminate the darkness and shed light on the lives of those with memory loss.

As a certified music therapist, I am often asked, “What is music therapy?”.   For a technical answer, music therapy is an evidenced-based practice in which credentialed professionals use music to address the physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of a group or individual.  In other words, music is used in various ways to reach therapeutic goals. A typical music therapy session takes place with a certified professional using music to stimulate healing and improve the quality of life of patients. Music therapists use methods such as listening to music, writing songs, making music or just simply talking about music. Some approaches may also involve images and learning from music to help patients with specific struggles. Music therapy can benefit many populations, especially those experiencing memory decline. According to research, “While brain areas dealing with cognition and language degenerate, the parts that respond to music are left intact, providing an alternate pathway into the mind”. Music has the power to stimulate memories.  I have seen this take place firsthand during many (if not all) of my music therapy sessions at Gianna Homes.

During one of my very first sessions at Gianna Homes, I started the group off by singing a familiar “Hello” song to check in with each resident.  I noticed one gentleman that was very tired and could barely lift his head to say hello.  The session continued and this resident remained lethargic, uninterested, and somewhat agitated until we began to sing “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”.  The resident’s head immediately perked up and he began to sing every lyric to the song. His demeanor changed completely; he suddenly had a huge grin on face and was singing along to the rest of the songs during the session. After a few more songs, he got out of his chair and came over to where I was sitting.  He began to express the love he has for his beloved late wife. I work with this resident on a regular basis and when he normally mentions his wife, he is usually asking me where she is, not remembering that she passed away last year. But after we sang the song a second time, the gentleman again expressed his love for his late wife.  Even after the session had long ended this resident could be heard singing the song for the rest of the evening. This song shed light on this man’s memories of his dear wife. 

Another moment when music brought light to beautiful memories was during one of my individual sessions with a resident.  This resident suffers from dementia and much of the time she does not speak coherently. Although this is the case, as soon as we start our session, she will sing every word to her favorite songs (and more!).  During one session, we sang one of her favorites, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”. After we finished, I asked her, “Who else does God have in his hands?” She immediately responded with her husband’s name and a smile spread across her face.

The impact of music therapy on individuals with memory loss is incredible.  Music is one of the most powerful medicines in the world. Neurologist Oliver Sacks states, “Often people who can no longer use or understand language and cannot achieve conceptual thought can respond to music. I’ve seen patients who couldn’t take a single step but could dance and patients who could not utter a single syllable but could sing”.  Music sheds light in the darkest of places. For those with memory loss, it illuminates memories that were once lost in the darkness. 

You can help us brighten the path of someone with dementia. Learn more about our Illuminate the Darkness of Dementia Matching Donor Campaign: click here.