Courtesy of the Mason Music and Memory Initiative

Mason initiative aims to improve lives of those with dementia through music


For the kickoff webinar event on Feb. 24, Mason’s Music & Memory Initiative hosted founder Dan Cohen. Cohen was featured on the 2014 documentary “Alive Inside,” which follows his job as a social worker as he fought to break through the health care system to demonstrate how music could combat memory issues and improve the lives of those with dementia and Alzheimer’s. 

“This has been a difficult year for everyone. We’ll take a look at the benefits of personal music, and the role it can play in a still-COVID and a post-COVID world. I believe that nursing home leadership right now is looking for answers on how to bounce back,” said Cohen. 

At Mason, the initiative is part of the national Music & Memory program that was founded by Cohen in 2008. Since 2019, researchers have been recruiting nursing homes throughout Virginia to take part in the study on the effectiveness of Music & Memory. It also provides additional team training for health care professionals through live webinars. 

Music & Memory looks at how music could be of therapeutic use, which could help individuals with a wide range of cognitive and physical conditions. The program provides nursing homes with MP3 players for health care professionals to set up personalized playlists for their patients. These musical favorites could be formative songs — such as the patient’s first dance song from their wedding — to tap into deep memories not lost to dementia. 

Cohen discussed some of the therapeutic effects of music on dementia patients during the webinar, as well as how the COVID-19 pandemic has caused challenges in caring for people with dementia. An example of this that he touched on included the lack of visitors, as many in long-term care have been unable to see their families for months and are not able to understand or remember why. Other impacts he mentioned were on the mental health of patients, engagement, mood and anxiety. 

Music in dementia care can help improve mood, lower resistance to care, reduce anxiety and falls, increase socialization and help patients maintain a sense of self. Another important benefit linked to the practice is reducing or avoiding “sundowning,” a state of confusion occurring in the late afternoon and evening, where behavior can be more erratic or anxious. 

“What we’ve learned is that relevant, meaningful music reaches our residents despite cognitive impairment. It bypasses the non-well-functioning aspects of our cognition, to work to reach us, and people’s love of music is still 100 percent there,” Cohen said. “We just have to give them the opportunity, the access and the assistance — there’s no downside.”

Through funding from the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services, Mason Music & Memory Initiative researchers hope to provide the program to residents in at least 144 Medicaid-funded nursing homes in Virginia.