The Healing Power of Music on Older Adults with Memory Loss

By on February 8, 2018

By Bonnie Stover, Director of Volunteer Services at Front Porch—

I would like to tell you about Tomoko. Tomoko has memory challenges. For the past year, she has lived at Summer House at Villa Gardens, the memory care neighborhood within Villa Gardens Retirement Community in Pasadena, part of Front Porch, a not-for-profit provider of senior living communities. Although Tomoko sometimes struggles to recognize family members and recent events, she knows all the words to “Amazing Grace,” “America the Beautiful” and other favorite songs. And when she joins in a song together with her longtime friend, Esther, the two of them share a powerful emotional connection.

As director of Volunteer Services for Front Porch, I am constantly looking for ways to enrich the lives of older adults and give residents opportunities to volunteer. About a year ago, I became intrigued with a music program, The Giving Voice Chorus. This community chorus engages people with cognitive disorders and their caregivers, bringing a sense of joy and purpose to people with Alzheimer’s and their care partners. 

Finding meaningful ways to engage retirement community residents who are experiencing memory loss and other cognitive disorders can be challenging. Research is teaching us that music is an amazing catalyst to engage people regardless of their cognitive abilities. Exploring this idea further, I assembled a group of team members from Summer House at Villa Gardens.

We organized and named our chorus Joyful Hearts and secured funding from two of Front Porch’s partner foundations, FACT Foundation and California Lutheran Homes and Community Services to hire a music director and an Alzheimer’s and dementia expert. Besides benefitting the resident singers, we wanted to educate our volunteer “buddies” about ways to support resident singers while partnering with them.

Finally, after several rounds of reviews, our plan was approved and Joyful Hearts was officially formed. Our primary goal was to have fun. No one was expected to have a good singing voice (though many did). We started with two rehearsals per week, serving refreshments and encouraging socializing, something our dementia expert had recommended.

We experimented with different musical genres to see what would resonate with the residents. It soon became clear they thrived on variety, from movie musicals to patriotic anthems to folk songs. Our small chorus of about a dozen singers began to grow once the word got out and the halls of Summer House began filling with music. Residents and staff began stopping by. 

Slowly, our shy and inward-focused resident singers started to make eye contact and  became more conversational, animated and connected. Several residents whose language skills had deteriorated were soon singing words effortlessly. Even those who seemed not to respond were, upon a closer look, tapping their feet, then singing at first with their eyes closed and then open! 

Our volunteer buddies were having a blast too. Some teamed up with former neighbors and friends from independent living at Villa Gardens who had since moved to Summer House. Now, they were able to connect with a common purpose – creating music together.  

I started hearing the stories. 

Military veterans were tearing up during patriotic songs. A daughter was learning new things about her mother as the songs began to trigger long-lost memories. Caregivers reported that residents who rarely spoke couldn’t  stop talking about the chorus. 

Esther and Tomoko had been good friends in Villa Gardens independent living and had enjoyed conversing in Japanese together. However, once Tomoko moved into Summer House, they lost contact. Tomoko came into the program very shy and withdrawn, but now, with Esther’s help, she is speaking, smiling and singing with everyone.  

Then, out of the blue, we were invited to participate in the Villa Gardens community talent show. 

I began preparing the choir for some of the changes they would experience. We conducted two dress rehearsals in the Community Room at Villa Gardens, so everyone could become familiar with new surroundings. Our music director was bringing his youth choir, The Los Angeles Youth Ambassadors, to sing along with us, providing an intergenerational connection. 

Residents, family members, staff and community members showed up to support the singers. With standing room only, the Joyful Hearts Chorus brought down the house! The looks on the choir members’ faces said it all: they had worked towards a goal and were able to accomplish it with style and grace in a short time. 

Joyful Hearts is now practicing for a Holiday program due to demand from the Villa Gardens community. 

I have a few insights for any individual looking for inspiration when caring for an aging parent, family member or friend with dementia or cognitive issues.

Singing together live, with a director, music books and an accompanist creates an experience that can’t be matched by headphones or a TV screen. Be flexible and prepared to be surprised, in a good way! Music activities that focus on fun, rather than perfection, allow people to relax, bond socially and look forward to coming back again. The key is the experience!

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The Healing Power of Music on Older Adults with Memory Loss