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If You Had Dementia, What Songs Would Be on Your Playlist?


A UW-Milwaukee gerontologist looking at the impact of music on patients with dementia finds an unexpected connection:Whenever I hear Frank Sinatra sing "My Way" or Doris Day sing "Que Sera Sera" - two of my parents’ favorites - I recall my dad’s love of vocals and my mom’s practical wisdom.

"You will be whatever you will be," mom would tell me when I was a teenager growing up in South Korea.

And hearing music of indie groups Grizzly Bear and Okkervil River, I re-experience the feelings of awe and happiness I felt during road trips with a friend that I took several years ago along the magnificent and beautiful California and Florida coasts.

Music is often with us when we drive, work, play, worship, celebrate, and mourn. It is an essential part of our memory making. That is why lately I have been thinking about which songs I want family and friends to play for me if I develop dementia.

Credit Jung Kwak
Dr. Jung Kwak is a UWM professor and gerontologist.

I’m a music lover and a gerontologist who is all too familiar with dementia, a disease that gradually robs a person of memory, mind, ability to do basic activities and sense of self. It’s possible that I will not be able to create a playlist when I need it most.

But today, I am 38 years old and healthy.

I know just how much of my sense of self can be found in the Rhythms of the Bad Plus and Fleet Foxes and the Lyrics of Joni Mitchell, and Lee Moon-Sae, whose songs I used to listen to obsessively growing up.

I just started a research study with my colleagues about individualized music listening among nursing home residents with dementia. Neuroscientific and clinical research has shown that music can enhance cognitive development and emotional well-being. Various music therapies have been designed for people with developmental or physical disabilities or even terminal illnesses. But can simply listening to one’s favorite songs improve memory, mood and quality of life for the 5 million people with dementia in the United States alone?

We are trying to answer this question in our study of the Music & Memory program, which uses personalized music playlists delivered on iPods to nursing home residents with dementia. With funding from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the program is being implemented with residents with dementia in 100 nursing homes in the state of Wisconsin. We are testing if the Music and Memory program is as effective as the usual pharmacological treatments for dementia.

Simply put, music can trigger happy memories - from childhood, youth, and young adulthood. These memories evoke positive emotions, which shift a person’s thinking away from the stressful stimuli of the nursing home.

The person feels happier. Less anxious. Less agitated. Is more engaged with their family and nursing home staff. AND, requires less medication. This is no small thing. More than 70 percent of people with dementia are affected by depression, aggression, anxiety, apathy, or withdrawal. The usual treatment is medications.

As a social scientist, I believe research will help us better understand if and how music affects our memory, cognition and mood. These studies might help us improve music programs that maximize therapeutic benefits and decrease use of medications.

But as a music lover, I’m not waiting for the results. Personally, I’m developing my playlist even without firm empirical evidence that music ameliorates dementia.

Odds are my mind and body will fail many years from now and I will have to depend on the care, good will, love and compassion from my family, friends, neighbors and professional caregivers.

If that time comes, I hope they can share the joy and beauty of music I have loved, the songs in which I hear my life. Bach, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, the Beatles, Beastie Boys, Radiohead, Elbow…my playlist goes on.

What would be on your list?

Dr.Jung Kwak is an assistant professor of social work at UWM's Helen Bader School of Social Welfare, where she teaches gerontology and end-of-life care issues. She also researches family caregivers and end stage care decision making. She is currently studying the how effective personalized music listening therapies are for nursing home residents with dementia.