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For seniors, music speaks when words fail

January 8, 2015

There are certain songs that make you shake your hips, others that cause you to cry and still more that you can't listen to without singing along. Music is a beautiful gift, whether you have experience playing it or are simply a fan. It allows people to communicate in a different way, evokes more emotions than words at times and can facilitate new interpersonal connections.

These benefits are especially important for older adults who are experiencing cognitive decline. Studies have found that music is a valuable tool in caregiving and helping loved ones maintain happiness.

A new device
An innovative MP3 player called Remind was created at the Umeå Institute of Design in Sweden, and it caters specifically to people with dementia. Three students collaborated on the project for two weeks in their sound design course and have since been nominated for the 2014 Interaction Awards. 

Music can bring people happiness.

The creators were inspired by a video called "Alive Inside" which showcases the music therapy work of Music and Memory. This group collects iPods and fills them with music for residents of senior living to enjoy. Using that concept, Remind was designed to tailor the experience to individual people.

The user-centered design includes a mobile application for caregivers that allows loved ones to control the music remotely. The device itself has one large power button that spins to adjust the volume or change the song. It uses lights and tactile feedback to keep people engaged as they listen to the music.

Through the smartphone app, caregivers can create playlists for specific events or memories, label songs that are associated with certain occasions and set recognition songs for visitors. These are meant to play when someone enters the room, to give someone with cognitive decline an additional context clue if he or she can't recall the loved one's face or name. For example, a spouse might trigger a wedding song from decades ago or family members might evoke the song an older woman used to dance to with her family. Caregivers also have access to music timers, statistics and a recording function for messages or familiar sounds. 

"Comprehending music doesn't require the same network of neural pathways that other forms of communication do."

"Since music is strongly linked to emotion, our brains connect music with long-term memory, as long as it's personal, familiar music," student Emily Keller told Fast Company. "I think there's a lot of potential to use these melodies and lyrics ingrained deep in the brain to trigger memories."

Music as treatment
People have been using music to supplement or replace Western medicine for centuries. Aristotle and Plato discussed the potential healing power of music, but recorded instances of music as treatment began in the 1800s. During the first and second world wars, musicians performed in veterans' hospitals for men who were recovering from battle wounds.

When it comes to managing symptoms in people with Alzheimer's disease, music has the ability to facilitate cognitive function, even in later stages of the illness. That's because comprehending music doesn't require the same network of neural pathways that other forms of communication do. Even if older people have a difficult time expressing themselves through writing or speaking, they can demonstrate how they feel through the music.

If a loved one struggles to communicate with caregivers, music may be the key to taming the agitated states that often arise with dementia. Medical studies have found that listening to music can physically quell stress, bringing about a decrease in heart rate and cortisol levels more than anti-anxiety medicine.