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CMU students help elderly recall memories through music

Music therapy helps elderly with Alzheimer’s and dementia recall long-term memories

From long car rides to background noise, music is linked to many facets of everyday life. Central Michigan University faculty and students also have found it is an important tool in helping Mount Pleasant residents suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia recall long-term memories.

“Memory is affected by a lot of factors, especially those associated with emotional attachment — and music is one of those because it’s everywhere,” CMU music professor Jennifer Kitchen said. “Thinking back to high school graduation or first dates, you remember that part of your life and the emotion you felt when you hear a song that was popular during that time.”

When Kitchen informed her classes about the Music and Memory Foundation, a national organization developing music and memory therapies, she never imagined the success her students would have when they decided to do a similar project in Mount Pleasant.

The students volunteer with 26 residents at The Laurels of Mount Pleasant, an extended-stay location for those with physical or cognitive limitations.

The residents are given an iPod filled with popular music from their teen years, a time in life Kitchen said is correlated with a lot of emotion. Other music the residents enjoy includes sing-a-long songs, American folk songs, Christmas music and rock ‘n’ roll — especially the Beatles.

The project has been implemented in two classes. Lowell senior Kelsey Mankel was part of the first class that organized the project and was able to see first-hand how much the music affected the mood and behaviors of the residents.

“I worked with one man who was fairly unresponsive and withdrawn, but when we put the headphones on, he sat up, nodded along, and began sharing stories and talking with us,” she said. “Seeing people who were previously unresponsive suddenly light up and begin talking, singing and interacting with the music — transforming in front of my eyes — reaffirmed my belief in the power of music to affect people.”

Randi L’Hommedieu, School of Music director, has witnessed the impact of this project on both the residents and on the students.

“Watch the students work with the folks, and you’ll see them grow in empathy, in comfort in working with people unlike themselves and in giving something of themselves to others,” L’Hommedieu said. “Everything we do in music is a service, so this is important in helping our students become music professionals.”

For Kitchen and her students, working with the patients is a rewarding and humbling experience, as relationships are formed and progress toward memory retrieval and being present in everyday life is made.

“This project is something I didn’t even know we were going to do — or go as far as we have,” Kitchen said. “Working with these residents is so inspiring. You see them responding and recognizing you when you walk in, and I just leave smiling.”

The project currently operates on a volunteer-only basis. Kitchen hopes to enter a yearlong process of fundraising and working with professionals at the Music and Memory Foundation to certify the experimental project. The project has been supported by the Morey Foundation and CMU’s Morey Senior Outreach Project.​

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