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Unlocking Memories with Music

According to the Mayo Clinic, research suggests that listening to or singing songs can provide emotional and behavioral benefits for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. Musical memories are often preserved in Alzheimer’s disease because key brain areas linked to musical memory are relatively undamaged by the disease.

Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging

At Maplewood Senior Living, we’re continually looking for ways to improve the health and wellbeing of the residents in our communities. One unique way we’ve done that is by partnering with the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging (Benjamin Rose).

Benjamin Rose has operated with a mission to “advance support for older adults and caregivers” in Ohio, since 1908. Along with providing resources related to housing and advocacy efforts, Benjamin Rose has a Center for Research and Education focused on the development of programs that improve senior health and wellness.

In 2015, Benjamin Rose received a grant from the Ohio Department of Aging to implement a music and memory program with individuals living at home or in assisted living settings. Through this initial partnership, Maplewood residents in all three Ohio communities received iPod shuffles that contained songs as part of their personalized music playlist. This initial collaboration allowed Maplewood community members to participate, engage and receive the benefit of music. As that program came to a close, the partnership between Benjamin Rose and Maplewood communities was growing stronger.

Connections through Music – A New Approach

In 2017, Benjamin Rose developed a new group music program for individuals with dementia, called Making Connections through Music. This innovative new program is made up of 6 individually themed sessions complete with familiar songs, small instruments, discussion questions, and photos to increase engagement and socialization among group members.

Benjamin Rose has been training group leaders, both staff (at communities like Maplewood) and volunteers, on how to administer the Making Connections through Music program. The leader uses a pre-defined curriculum for six sessions, with the understanding and empowerment to adjust to fit the dynamic of each group.

Each session includes a component of music and memory, with a high-level topic area front and center. For the first gathering, “celebration” is the topic. A large session board sits at the front of the room with CELEBRATION spelled out in bold letters, next to pictures of a familiar event or holiday icon such as a birthday cake, Valentine’s heart and a baseball. As the leader begins to introduce the topic, individuals are encouraged to reminisce about their traditions or favorite memories through song and discussion.

During Making Connections Through Music sessions, leaders encourage all participants to engage in the program at their level, focusing on an individual’s strengths, regardless of an individual’s ability to recall specific memories. Silvia Orsulic-Jeras, a researcher in Benjamin Rose’s Center for Research and Education and developer of the program says, “The goal is to support each individual to participate at their highest level. The program has a built-in structure that supports consistency and familiarity from session to session. More importantly though, session leaders are trained to adjust discussion questions and use of materials to allow individuals with dementia to engage at their highest level. If a participant is having a hard time connecting with the music or engaging with a discussion point, leaders can quickly adjust by asking a question a different way or moving along to another song that is more familiar.  This way, the program focuses on the strengths of the participants rather than the challenges they experience living with dementia. ”

Along with providing a positive outlet and activity, the Making Connections Through Music program is helping individuals with much more. Silvia shares, “Research shows that music programs can decrease anxiety and agitation, and increase social connections and reminiscence through the unlocking of long-term memories. When an individual can reminisce, or share more about their personal life experience, they’re able to better connect with others by sharing who they are with those around them. This includes family members and friends, as well as staff.”

With the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging as a partner, we are excited to continue advancing memory care options for our residents. In a previous pilot study of the Making Connections through Music program, key research findings show that 97% of participants demonstrated “high levels of engagement.” This means participants are clapping, dancing and singing along throughout the sessions, rather than simply watching, not participating or falling asleep. According to Silvia, this engagement is increasing connection as well. “In our initial study in another community, staff members reported hearing things from residents about their lives that they were not aware of previously. They’ll share that they didn’t know a particular resident rode horses in their earlier days or knew how to play the piano.” As various songs bring back memories or emotions, they also bring back an era. “It is amazing to see the connections that group participants are able to share with one another, mainly around their childhood and young adult experiences, when they listen to familiar songs together,” says Silvia.

Unlocking Memories

The program is unlocking memories and creating connections specifically for residents with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. Silvia shares, “Your favorite music doesn’t change because you have dementia. Music remains a big part of who we are and our lifelong memories. When we hear our favorite songs, the emotions around the music tend to come to the surface, inviting special memories and moments to return, even if only long enough for a person to successfully participate and connect with others in a meaningful way.”

Beyond the six sessions, Maplewood residents in participating communities can continue to listen to their favorite music on their iPod provided to them through the initial collaboration with Benjamin Rose. They are also invited to go through the program again, because even though the topic is the same, the discussions are always different. Silvia believes the best is yet to come, given the positive results they’re already seeing from the pilot program. Currently seeking additional funding, Benjamin Rose plans to increase the training for volunteers and staff, as well as create new modules, based on the six-topic structure. As preliminary results come in, Silvia is excited to see more positive results within Maplewood and other communities.

Innovative Partnerships

At Maplewood Senior Living, we pride ourselves on partnering with local universities, associations and agencies, such as Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging, to ensure that we are implementing the latest research and technology into the programming and care that we provide our residents.

To learn more about our partner and the exciting research they’re doing on this program and others, visit the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging. To learn more about the positive effect of the Making Connections through Music program in Maplewood communities, visit

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Westport, CT 06880

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