Alle Salazar: Music & Memory 

Understanding the role of music in treating dementia and Alzheimer's

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click to enlarge Alle Salazar
  • Alle Salazar

Just hearing Chubby Checker's "The Twist" brings back memories of the good old days, of sodas and milkshakes at the sock hop. Understanding the role of music in evoking memories, the Music & Memory program brings meaningful music to people with dementia and Alzheimer's. Alle Salazar is a volunteer coordinator and counselor at Jewish Family Service, a nonprofit that offers the Music & Memory program. Salazar interviews patients for the program with questionnaires that identify significant music from a person's life, such as songs patients danced to at their weddings, or musicals they liked. Patients then receive an iPod with personalized playlists of 100-200 songs, Skull Candy headphones and charging equipment.

How does music help those with memory loss?
It helps them access a sense of identity that often gets lost when you're isolated or depressed or have lost memory. It sort of brings them back to life, temporarily. A person can listen to half an hour of their favorite music that we've interviewed them about, and then they come out of their shell.

Why not just make your own playlist?
Money. You're going to save money. The device, the headphones, the music on it—potentially, if you were to pay for all of that, it could cost you upward of $300. Our questionnaires are designed to get at what needs to be on the playlist. They've been validated with research and are consistently being evaluated, so we know how to get the right stuff. There's also a benefit in the large library we have—we have a central computer where all the music is kept.

What happens when you have more clients than iPods?
We're trying to get the word out that we need donations. An iPod is a really worthwhile thing to [donate], if nobody's using it. People donate their iPods, but sometimes they don't donate the cords or the charging blocks, and those buggers are expensive. We're always hoping that people will make donations to us, in the form of money or gift cards or equipment. But also, we're trying to obtain grants from community foundations.

Has the music ever upset a patient?
Emotionally, no. We haven't seen them hear music and get upset. That hasn't happened. What has happened a couple times is, for one reason or another, they decide they don't want it. It sort of coincides with a phase of Alzheimer's and dementia of denial and resistance to the diagnosis.

Why music?
There's tons of research on it already saying that it increases cognitive engagement, it reduces agitation, and people use less pain medication and anti-anxiety medication. With their music, they're calm, they're taken back to a place that's positive. They remember and re-access who they are, and they don't need the amount of medication anymore, because they're happy.

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