Daniel R. George, Ph.D, M.Sc is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Public Health Sciences at Penn State College of Medicine. He earned his Ph.D and M.Sc in medical anthropology from Oxford University in 2010. Dr. George is co-author of The Myth of Alzheimer’s, which was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2008, and has been translated into 4 languages and co-author of American Dementia: Brain Health in an Unhealthy Society (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021).
The Power of Music: Effects of a Personalized Music Intervention for Persons with Dementia and their Caregivers
Many of us who work in eldercare environments have no shortage of stories about the power of music. Out of all the arts-based approaches I have been privileged to experience with people living with dementia (storytelling, gardening, expressive artwork), music remains the one with the most primal therapeutic power. Indeed, music connects to something quintessentially human within us. Its appearance in assisted living homes can often alter moods, foster or deepen relationships and bonding, and infuse joy and vitality into otherwise low-energy settings.
Last decade, the documentary Alive Inside sparked the idea that old repurposed iPods could be used to build specialized playlists for elders in residential care. A few years ago, I mentored a medical student, now internal medicine resident John Bufalini, who employed this approach, developing individualized playlists for residents living with dementia in a local skilled care facility and playing the music on a Bluetooth speaker. John also involved family caregivers to share in the music experience. Thus, not only did residents often come to life during sessions, tapping in rhythm on wheelchairs, gyrating, and singing as they recalled old familiar lyrics and melodies from Elvis and Beatles’ songs, but their loved ones were able to share in this experience and observe the fleeting but ecstatic metamorphosis music can induce. In fact, caregivers in the study reported feeling less overwhelmed and more bonded to loved ones after participating in the sessions.
We should think about how music might be additive to other programming for older adults and their caregivers. For instance, another student is currently enlisting other talented students to play live porch concerts with personalized music in conjunction with Meals on Wheels deliveries around our hospital. How else might we imagine the life-affirming force of music helping break through the loneliness and isolation that have so defined the Covid era?