The Magical Touch of Music – and Memory

It often can be a struggle to get past the thick barriers posed by Alzheimer’s and other dementias, to reach the person affected, and to bring back the richness of life people so deserve. Sometimes, ‘magic’ seems the only solution!

I think anyone who works in long-term care has wished for the touch of magic dust to bring a smile, ease anxiety, comfort the confused or fulfill the bored or lonely. As a recreational therapist with Eastern Health, I found a little ‘magical dust!’ It’s called the Music & Memory Program.

As a music lover, I was intrigued when I heard about this program. It was one of those slap-your-forehead moments, when you mutter “Of course, why didn’t I think of that!”

Music & Memory offers personalized music intervention to seniors suffering from dementia – using iPods. The results are often immediate and dramatic – like a touch of magic dust.

In the spring of 2016, I, along with two other therapeutic recreational therapists, received training for the program, and enthusiastically began to prepare to offer Music & Memory to our residents at Agnes Pratt Nursing Home.

Linda’s Story

Linda and Basil at a ‘Welcome Tea’ - Spring 2016

Linda and Basil at a ‘Welcome Tea,’ Spring 2016

Linda Fagan is a 71-year-old woman with a loving husband and family. In her 40s, Linda contracted a rare eye disease and is now blind. About seven years ago, her husband, Basil, began noting signs of dementia. Basil describes he and Linda as best friends, as two people who had a happy life and loved to travel and dance together.

Linda’s blindness, combined with dementia, has made her mornings at Agnes Pratt Home particularly difficult. The foreign sounds of a bustling unit of 23 other people, staff and carts often leaves Linda feeling scared and lost. None of the solutions brought forward by health-care providers seemed to ease Linda’s distress. In the mornings, she would call out for Basil and cry for hours.

The first Music & Memory assessment I completed at Eastern Health was for Linda. Basil donated many CDs of her most-loved music collection.  “I always thought music was a wonderful thing for people with dementia. When she was home, I played her music all the time,” says Basil.

The first time I placed a set of headphones on Linda, she smiled: “Oh, that’s a good one!” was her remark to Hank William’s ‘Hey Good Looking.’ She sank back calmly in her favourite chair and began tapping her toes contentedly.

Over the weeks that followed, Linda would often be seen in her fashionable jeans and sneakers dancing in the halls, or sitting happily swinging her crossed leg to the beat of her personalized iPod.

We were all so amazed by Linda’s response – that nurses, too, began administering personalized music intervention. Mornings on the unit became less stressful for everyone – especially Linda. “I’m so thankful that Linda has been included in this program,” stated Basil, “I know she enjoys it and needs it.”

Margaret’s Story

Margaret - Mother’s Day 2014

Margaret, Mother’s Day 2014

Now 86 years old,  Margaret came to us five years ago in the moderate stage of dementia – pleasantly confused, but also with some vision loss.

As a devoted mother, wife, sister, teacher and Sunday school teacher, Margaret was known for her vivacious, fun loving personality. Over the years, Margaret shared many funny stories, joined heartily into sing-a-longs, and earned the love of her Agnes Pratt family.

As her illness progressed, so did her vision loss. Today, Margaret is blind with advanced dementia. This combination has left Margaret anxious and at-risk of falling out of bed, or despondent and crying.

Margaret’s nurse and recreational therapy worker decided to try the Music & Memory Program to help ease some of Margaret’s anxiety.

The results for Margaret were truly magical!

Margaret became instantly alert as soon as she heard the music. She became more focused, and began singing along her loved music. Within a few minutes, Margaret was responding to her recreational therapist and nurse – showing her old charm and humour, something she had not done for several months.

“The pure joy on Margaret’s face when the music started playing touched my heart,” says Licensed Practical Nurse Ramona Sturge. “It was like the music brought Margaret back to a special moment in time.  I was so happy to see her beautiful smile, and singing along.  I was moved to tears.”

Aggie’s Story

Aggie singing during her Mother’s Day Glamour Shot 2016

Aggie singing during her Mother’s Day Glamour Shot 2016

Aggie Greene is a force of nature. At 87 years old, Aggie is an outgoing, charming person, with a love of people, singing and a deep faith.

Aggie is a natural-born entertainer, with flashing intelligent eyes and a big heart. Unfortunately, dementia has made moving around difficult for her, and Aggie now uses a wheelchair.

It is Aggie’s love of music that made her a real candidate for the music and memory program.  Care providers have found that giving Aggie her personalized iPod has made a big difference to her mood, keeping her anxiety down and improving their ability to care for her.

On most early morning visits to the unit, one will find Aggie in bed snuggled in her covers, headphone on and eyes lit up with the enjoyment of the music.

Marcy, Aggie’s daughter says, “Music has been a huge part of my mom’s life, from singing in choirs to entertaining family and friends. My dad, too, loved music – and they often did duets and considered themselves quite the musical pair”.

“The Music & Memory program has had a significant impact in my mom’s quality of life. She is more “my loving mom” – much calmer and happier when I see her. I am truly grateful for this program’s positive impact.”

For Linda, Margaret and Aggie in the one minute it takes to place headphones on their ears and to turn on the iPods, these women’s lives are improved.  Their emotional well-being and enjoyment of life are enhanced by their music.

In my many years as a therapeutic recreational specialist, this is one of the most simple, yet effective and beautiful interventions for seniors suffering from Alzheimer’s, and a powerful tool for care givers.

The Music & Memory Program is truly like a touch of magic.

This story was written by Kim Conran, a therapeutic recreational specialist at The Agnes Pratt Home with Eastern Health.

If you have an iPod you would like to donate to the Music and Memory program at Eastern Health, or would to make a cash donation via the Health Care Foundation, please visit our website

2 responses to “The Magical Touch of Music – and Memory

  1. It’s truly amazing to see how music calms patients and soothes their souls. It really is a language everyone understands. I’m so happy it was immensely effective for my special lady during her regular ‘sundowning’ !

  2. Love this story! It adds a local flavour to the “Alive Inside” documentary on this subject. If you haven’t seen it, it is availble on Netflix. Truly inspiring!!

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