Evoking memories with music

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
Robert Friedman

Music therapist Jeannie Finnegan performs for residents of nursing homes and senior living communities. She finds music helps engage and comfort patients with dementia and other serious conditions. Studies show that music spurs memories, helping patients recall events and people in their lives.
Photo courtesy of Jeannie Finnegan

Carolyn, who suffers from advanced dementia and is bed-ridden at a local nursing facility, says she would like to hear some hymns. Music therapist Jeannie Finnegan strums her guitar and sings “Amazing Grace.”

“Oh, so beautiful,” says Carolyn (not her real name), wiping her eyes. She turns to the wall. “Do you hear it? Do you hear the singing?”

Finnegan is not sure to whom Carolyn is speaking or what she is imagining. Now she plays “In the Garden,” and Carolyn is soon singing, “And He walks with me, and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own...”

Carolyn, who is in her late 80s, says, “They’re singing along with me. My children are 4 and 5, and they are singing with me. Isn’t that something?”

“Oh, that’s wonderful,” Finnegan agrees.

The session ends and Carolyn says of her children, who have been brought to her consciousness by the hymn, “When I look at them, my faith is fulfilled.”

A healing touch

Finnegan knows about the therapeutic power of music, and how it triggers memory and brings solace to the chronically and terminally ill.

Her visit to Carolyn was one of many she has made to nursing homes and senior living communities around Howard County and adjoining areas. She plays her guitar and sings for the residents, especially for those with memory loss.

“I believe music is uniquely therapeutic for people with Alzheimer’s, dementia and other cognitive impairments and physical challenges,” said Finnegan, who lives in Sykesville. “My mission and passion is to increase awareness and education about the power of music to evoke memories and positive emotions.”

Finnegan created her company, Melodies & Memories, in 2011 and has since immersed herself fully into her passion and mission.

Finnegan has recorded and performed professionally as a musician with the Choral Arts Society of Washington, among other groups. She has also worked for years in Alzheimer’s and dementia care and long-term care administration.

Finnegan, 54, is also a certified dementia practitioner. This means that Finnegan “has received comprehensive knowledge in the area of dementia care…and reflects a deep personal commitment... inspiring confidence and dedication,” according to the National Council of Certified Dementia Practitioners.

“Music is able to engage those who can no longer be engaged by any other means,” Finnegan said in an interview. “I want to educate and encourage families, caregiving staff, and literally everyone to get involved in bringing meaningful music to those who can no longer access it for themselves.”

Making a musical connection

Finnegan has learned the musical ways to offer “comfort and connection,” and loves carrying out her life’s mission.

She said that during her initial visits to various senior communities and rooms of the residents she has become “a bit of an investigator.” She tries to find the type of music that will connect to a “happy and meaningful time” in the life of the listener.

“Sometimes I can get information by looking for cues around the room,” Finnegan said. “If there is military memorabilia, I might try patriotic songs. If there are religious artifacts, I could sing hymns.”

Music, she has found, helps seniors connect with pleasant memories, helps them communicate with family and friends, stimulates their movement, and allows them to express their emotion.

It can even decrease pain, anxiety and depression, “and help improve the quality of life, especially for those battling illness or memory impairment.”

Music of any genre — country, classical, religious, jazz, the blues — could be the means to the deep and heartfelt memories of the past, Finnegan said.

Finnegan gives seminars and workshops on the power of music on memory, and will offer a course on the subject at Howard County Community College this spring.

Remarkable changes

Andi Walsh, director of recreation and engagement at Integrace Fairhaven, a retirement community in Sykesville, has seen how weekly visits by Finnegan and other musicians have spurred emotion-filled, positive responses in the residents.

“After these sessions, residents who seldom speak are able to answer questions and engage in conversations,” Walsh said. “Even residents who are in the later stages of Alzheimer’s, and are totally dependent on us, they’re tapping their feet and clapping their hands.”

Walsh remembers Finnegan singing a hymn to an 87-year-old woman suffering late-stage Alzheimer’s. In the past, the woman had spent many happy days on sailboats. During the singing of the hymn, the woman suddenly said she heard the mast of the sailboat clinking and that she smelled the salt of the sea,

“She opened up; she was back on the boat,” said Walsh. “The residents may not remember what they had for lunch, or even whether they ate or not. But every word of a certain song can be meaningful to them,” she said.

Backed by research

The music-memory connection has become a serious subject for scientific research.

Psychology Today noted that “a series of recent studies have found that listening to music engages broad neural networks in the brain, including those regions responsible for motor actions, emotions and creativity.”

Not only does music evoke meaningful memories for sufferers of Alzheimer’s and dementia (as well as healthy people). A 2013 study conducted by scientists at the University of Newcastle in Australia found that music also helped severely brain-injured patients recall personal memories, the magazine pointed out.

Live Science, a science news website, wrote recently about a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California at Davis who said studies appear to show that “a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our heads.”

The neuroscientist, Petr Janata, said that the powerful recollections occur in the medial pre-frontal cortex part of the brain that sits just behind the forehead The UC study that found the connection went by the name, “The Neural Architecture of Music-Evoked Autobiographical Memories.”

Said Janata: “What’s cool about this is that one of the main parts of the brain that’s tracking the music is the same part that’s responding overall to how autobiographically salient the music is.”

The journal NeuroImage reported that Finnish researchers mapped how music affected brain networks by using MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to scan persons listening to an Argentinian tango.

Among other things, the researchers concluded that “music was more efficient at evoking autobiographical memories than verbal prompts…across each life period, and “may be beneficial in the rehabilitation of autobiographical amnesia.”

This appears to back up a 2010 study by Boston University researchers who found that Alzheimer’s patients who completed a series of memory tests “learned more lyrics when they were set to music rather than just spoken.”

World-renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks said in “Inside Alive,” a recent documentary about music and memory, that “Music imprints itself on the brain deeper than any other human experience. Music evokes emotion. And emotion can bring with it memory; it brings back the feeling of life when nothing else can.”

Andi Walsh, of the Sykesville retirement community, put her first-hand observations this way: “Music is amazing. It can connect so deeply to a person’s core.”