There’s no denying music is strongly tied to memory. Whether it’s the song they played at your senior prom or your grandmother’s favourite record from Sunday dinners, music has a way of taking us back. For those living with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, this simple fact may be the key to unlocking parts of the brain and creating a new form of therapy.

It’s a concept Kristel Bulthuis is hoping to put into action for Hamilton seniors. As a recreation therapist at The Village of Wentworth Heights — a Hamilton retirement community — she’s always looking for creative ways to improve and individualize care for her residents.

"Our big thing with our department is providing moments of joy," she says.

Music has always played a large role in activities at The Village: sing-alongs, live performances and ambient music are part of everyday life. But after seeing a U.S.-based project that uses individualized playlists to help soothe and stimulate people living with dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease, Bulthuis was inspired to try it out herself.

She’s been collecting donations of used iPods and MP3 players in order to launch a pilot project in January. They’ve begun to select 10 residents who would benefit from this sort of treatment and, through talking to the residents and their families, create an individualized playlist of their favourite music — and, specifically, music tied to memories.

A U.S. project, called Music and Memory, caught international attention when a scene from a documentary following the project went viral online earlier this year. In the clip, Henry, a man who suffers from advanced dementia, appears more or less unresponsive to those around him. Once his iPod is turned on, however, Henry visibly lights up and immediately begins to answer questions, recalling his favourite music and singing along.

Surprising results

Henry is not a unique case. In fact, the profound effect music has on him is consistent with other patients in similar programs.

In New Brunswick, The Atlantic Institute on Aging just completed a six-month pilot using a grant from the Music and Memory project in the U.S. Researchers are still reviewing the data from the project, which was collected at three residential facilities, but the anecdotal evidence of its success is abundant.

"We had one gentleman who had dementia and was no longer eating on his own. Every day at meal time he would leave and go back to his room," Barbara Burnett, executive director of the Atlantic Institute on Aging, explains, adding staff members would have to feed the man, who was quickly losing weight.

"The very first day that they gave him the personalized music, he began to eat on his own. He gained five pounds in a few short weeks."

Other patients who had lost all speech began to sing again. Some had improved mobility and all of them began to require less medication, Burnett said. When patients were agitated and staff members intervened using music, not once did they need to also use medication to calm the individual down.

"The results, in fact, were surprising. You hope to improve the quality of life, but the fact that the results were so obvious and evident was astonishing."

A love of music

When Bulthuis walks the halls at The Village, she knows everybody’s name. A smile, a hug, a saucy joke — she has a different, personal response for each resident. When we meet 83-year-old Jimmy Andrew, he’s snoozing by the fire.

After lunches, he usually has a nap, Bulthuis explains, and is pretty quiet. But he’s happy to take a moment to listen to the iPod and when he does, the retired veteran immediately lights up. In his lilting Scottish accent, he chats away about music, dancing and fond memories. The quiet, reserved man she described is nowhere to be found.

Andrew’s son, Tom, loves the idea of the program. He’s been transferring old cassette tapes with his father’s favourite music onto the computer to help set up his playlist.

"My father has always had a love of music," Andrew says, adding he had wanted to get his father an iPod for some time, but knew the elder Andrew would have trouble using it on his own.

"It has been good timing. He doesn’t interact with people as often anymore and this will have a good effect on him. It will add to his quality of life."

'Something very powerful'

In preparing to launch the program, Bulthuis has been experimenting with the iPod with different residents. She’s seen remarkable reactions already and thinks the personalized playlists will be even more effective.

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Sonya Carswell, 75, sings along to the music on her iPod. (Supplied)

"Music has the power to change lives, even far into someone’s dementia. It’s phenomenal," she says.

"I have residents who don’t talk. I start singing and they sing along with me and they know every word."

When she talks about the responses to music, Bulthuis’s eyes light up. A smile crosses her face that she can’t seem to shake. There’s something about the effect of music that constantly pleases and surprises her, she says.

"It blows my mind every time and I’ve been in this field since I was 15."

The effects of music on the brain are well-known, according to Mary Burnett, chief executive officer for the Alzheimer’s Society of Hamilton.

"There is neurological research to indicate music reaches people who are brain damaged," she said, noting music works both to stimulate parts of the brain that are still active while stirring something less tangible.

"It most often brings people back to old memories that are positive. There’s something very powerful about music and our memories."

Whether affecting lasting changes or simply bringing a moment of joy, Bulthuis is excited to see what the program will bring.

"It’s been really great so far and I’m so jazzed to see where it’s going."

Anyone wishing to donate an iPod or an MP3 player to the project should contact Kristel at Kristel.Bulthuis@schlegelvillages.com