Music and Memory helping residents at The Witherell

The Nathaniel Witherell is working with Music and Memory, a nonprofit organization that brings personalized music into the lives of the elderly or infirm through digital music technology in the hopes of stirring memories.

“The goal is to create and provide personalized playlists using iPods to enable those struggling with Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other cognitive and physical challenges, to reconnect with the world through music-triggered memories and emotions,” said Lynn Mason, a board-certified music therapist at the Witherell.

Among the Witherell’s first participants in the Music and Memory program is Cordella Shaw, age 94, who recently listened to her iPod in one of the Witherell’s newly remodeled porch areas and enthusiastically sang along with her beloved religious and gospel music.

“Mrs. Shaw was noticeably more alert and chatty for hours following listening to her music on the iPod. It was wonderful to see,” said Jayne Kennelly, RN, nurse manager at the Witherell.

Witherell’s Music and Memory pilot program is beginning with Shaw and four other residents who do not respond well in a group setting, as they often experience too much stimulation or confusion due to their dementia.

“Our target population is prone to social isolation, anxiety, and depression. The Music and Memory program can be another tool for reaching these residents and helping them to connect more to the world around them, organize their thinking, and function at their highest potential. On another level, it just brings pure joy,” Mason said.

She said Witherell’s Music and Memory program is dependent on a “person-centered care” approach, with a resident’s musical interest being gathered from staff, family, and friends, who become part of the team that develops a very tailored, personalized playlist for each resident and helps him/her access the music.

“Playlists can include a lullaby their mother sang to them as a child, their wedding song, a favorite opera, gospel music, or folksongs, or we may search for songs that were popular during the resident’s early years,” Mason said.

While Mason was approached about Music and Memory by its founder Dan Cohen in 2012, the program had to be tabled until Witherell’s Project Renew renovation project was completed in late 2014. In mid-January, some 20 to 30 Witherell nursing, recreation, volunteer, and chaplaincy staff members received the training required for the program.

The Witherell is now one of only four organizations in Fairfield County and a dozen in Connecticut to become a Music and Memory Certified Facility.

Thomas Saccardi, a member of The Witherell’s Board of Directors who championed the program, also attended the training. Saccardi, who first heard about Music and Memory when his wife took him to see a documentary about it called Alive Inside, said, “I’ve also seen the program up and running at another nursing home facility and watched the residents miraculously respond to the music. It was clear evidence we should do this here, and when I presented the program to the board they embraced it wholeheartedly.”

The Music and Memory website provides documented research that details how music can tap deep emotional recall in people with severe Alzheimer’s or dementia. While short-term memory for names, places, and facts is compromised, long-term memory in this population is often well preserved. Favorite music or songs associated with important personal events can trigger remembrance of lyrics and the experience associated with the music. In addition, music has been shown to calm chaotic brain activity, enabling the listener to focus on the present and regain a connection to others. Those with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia reconnect to the world, which improves their quality of life.

Mason said the goal is to eventually expand the Music and Memory program at the Witherell outside the domain of the nursing home and into the short-term rehab center, where it can help reduce pain and boredom experienced by rehab patients and increase their ability to relax.

“For now we are starting small, but there is great potential for broadening this terrific program,” she said.

Community members who would like to assist in the development of this project are welcome to donate gently used or new iPods (especially iPod shuffles), iTunes gift cards, chargers, and CD’s (especially Pop, Broadway, R&B, Motown, jazz, religious/gospel, folk, and country music). In coming months, the Witherell will be looking for volunteers who would like to help residents with the Music and Memory program.

For more information, call Mason at 203-618-4217.

Nathaniel Witherell resident Cordella Shaw (second from left) listens to one of her favorite songs on an iPod as part of the Witherell's new Music & Memory program. She is pictured with the following Witherell staff members: Violet Johnson (left), certified nursing assistant; Gail Carone (second from right), recreation therapist; and Jayne Kennelly (right), nurse manager.

Nathaniel Witherell resident Cordella Shaw (second from left) listens to one of her favorite songs on an iPod as part of the Witherell’s new Music & Memory program. She is pictured with the following Witherell staff members: Violet Johnson (left), certified nursing assistant; Gail Carone (second from right), recreation therapist; and Jayne Kennelly (right), nurse manager.

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