The Nathaniel Witherell to Introduce Innovative Music and Memory ProgramI to Improve Residents’ Quality of Life


Still from Alive Inside: The Story of Music and Memory. Photo credit: Michael Rossato-Bennett, 2012.

It’s probably safe to say that for most of us, music is an essential part of life. From the first nursery rhymes we learned as toddlers to the pop songs of our teenage years and the show tunes or classical music of adulthood, familiar melodies can instantly bring us back to another time and place because our brains are hard-wired to connect music with long-term memory. This is true even for those suffering from severe Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. Music resonates.

That’s why The Nathaniel Witherell is working with Music and MemorySM, a nonprofit organization that brings personalized music into the lives of the elderly or infirm through digital music technology. According to Lynn Mason, a board-certified music therapist at the Witherell, 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.”

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 was completed in late 2014. Now that construction is over, in mid-January some 20 to 30 Witherell nursing, recreation, volunteer, and chaplaincy staff members will receive the training required for the Witherell to become a Music and Memory Certified Facility – one of only four in Fairfield County and a dozen in Connecticut.

Also attending the training will be Thomas Saccardi, a member of The Witherell’s Board of Directors who enthusiastically championed the program. Saccardi, who first heard about Music and Memory when his wife took him to see a documentary about it called “Alive Inside” (see clip from movie here), says, “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 that we should do this here, and when I presented the program to the board they embraced it wholeheartedly.”

Witherell’s Music and Memory pilot program will begin with five residents in the Camelot (Alzheimer’s/Dementia) Unit who do not respond well in a group setting, often experiencing too much stimulation or confusion.

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

She says Witherell staff will work with each resident and his/her family members to develop a very tailored, personalized playlist. “It could be a lullaby their mother sang to them as a child, their wedding song, a favorite opera, gospel music, or folksongs. We may also search for songs that were popular during the resident’s early years.”

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 says 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.

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


video clip of Henry, one of the residents reawakened by listening to his Cab Calloway favorites, from the 2012 documentary, Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory.

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