Norm, who lives at the Moldaw Residences in Palo Alto, participates in the Music and Memory program. (Courtesy Moldaw)
Norm, who lives at the Moldaw Residences in Palo Alto, participates in the Music and Memory program. (Courtesy Moldaw)

Personal playlists help stimulate memory at Palo Alto senior home

Music touches people, says Gena Brigham, lifestyles director at Moldaw Residences in Palo Alto.

“It motivates. It inspires,” she says. “It moves people. It makes them feel directed.”

That’s why the dozen seniors in the memory-care section of Moldaw are now involved in the Music and Memory program, which helps senior-care centers set up MP3 players with playlists customized for each resident — bringing them their favorite melodies in order to stimulate their brains.

Mabelle Pumaras, assistant director of lifestyles at the continuing-care community, says she’s seen the effects firsthand, such as with an older woman who gets confused and distressed.

“The moment we put the headphones on, she dances through her hands,” Pumaras says.

Music and Memory was founded in 2006 in New York by Dan Cohen, and has since expanded to a dozen countries. It’s based on research that shows music is deeply connected to memory at the neural level. Personal connections can evoke strong memories and help ward off anxiety, depression and agitation for patients suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia.

The moment we put the headphones on, she dances through her hands.

Experts say that a favorite song associated with a pleasant memory can actually stimulate the parts of the brain that recall past events. The Music and Memory process involves setting up a personalized playlist for a senior, with music they know and have a strong connection to. For people with dementia, that often means asking their families.

“We really do rely on families to help us remember what [their loved ones] were listening to,” Brigham says.

For one Moldaw resident, that meant finding music in her first languages. It wasn’t easy, but the result has been rewarding, Brigham says.

“She’s listening to French music and Spanish music,” Brigham says. “And that’s wonderful for her.”

Each resident has their own player and playlist, and it’s up to them to decide if they want to listen or not. However, staff members often suggest using the device, for example, when a patient seems upset.

“That’s an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, let’s get out your iPod and listen to some music,’” Brigham says.

Moldaw already used music as a tool before the Music and Memory program started in March, and staff are well aware of its power.

“Music can make you happy. It can evoke nostalgia,” Brigham says. “Sometimes it can be very emotional.”

According to Arielle Hendel, development director at Moldaw, Music and Memory is funded through a three-year grant from the Association of Jewish Aging Services. (AJAS also supports Opening Minds Through Art, a weekly program in which 9th– and 10th-graders from Meira Academy, an all-girls Jewish school in Palo Alto, and Stanford University Hospital volunteers from join Moldaw residents to do art.)

Brigham says she hopes the Music and Memory program can be expanded to other sections of Moldaw so more seniors can take advantage of the mind-stimulating power of their own favorites songs.

“It’s definitely something we’re talking about,” she says.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.