People who have Alzheimer’s disease lose their memory, as well as their ability to communicate clearly and to care for themselves. The degenerative process is painful to watch. But one thing that stays with these individuals is the ability to enjoy music—especially music from meaningful periods in their life. And Unity Hospice of Greater St. Louis is capitalizing on that knowledge by helping Alzheimer’s patients and their loved ones experience meaningful moments.

The hospice recently introduced Music & Memory, a nonprofit program that trains care-givers to “create and provide personalized playlists using iPods and related digital audio systems that enable those struggling with Alzheimer’s, dementia and other cognitive and physical challenges to reconnect with the world through music-triggered memories.”

Brenda McGarvey, volunteer coordinator for Unity Hospice, was instrumental in bringing the program to St. Louis after seeing how music stirred her own father in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease. “When my father was sliding down the Alzheimer’s rabbit hole, we began playing songs for him that he had loved earlier in his life. I played the music my parents heard when they were dating, and my dad would nod and clap his hands,” she says. “I could reach down that rabbit hole, grab him and create a meaningful moment.”

Those ‘meaningful moments’ are the goal for hospice workers and caregivers. As dementia tightens its grip, people increasingly live in the present, unable to visit the past or accurately imagine the future. Meaningful moments begin to replace the ability to reminisce or talk about future plans.

Through Music & Memory, hospice staffers are trained to create personalized playlists for clients using iPod shuffles donated by family or other organizations. “The program is individualized for the client,” McGarvey says. “A typical session would be with a nurse, certified nurse assistant or volunteer and would last the length of their visit, which can last an hour or an afternoon.”

Although scientific studies have documented positive results when dementia patients are exposed to their favorite music, seeing is believing, and McGarvey has seen clients deep in the depths of dementia brighten up and respond to music in a way they can no longer respond to conversation. “We walk away knowing that we have created a happy moment for them, and isn’t that what it’s all about?” she asks. Clients also seem less stressed, agitated and resistant to care.

McGarvey recommends that families talk with aging loves ones about their favorite music and begin creating playlists for those recently diagnosed with dementia. “We want to talk to them while they’re still able so we know what they love to listen to,” she says. “Then we can play the music at any stage along the way.”

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