Music and Memory: Rekindling Joy Through Music

By Emily Kaplan

Through the musical offerings at our monthly Café Europa social luncheon events, our Holocaust Survivor Support team quickly realized that music holds a special place in survivors’ hearts. Looking around the room when a performer plays Broadway tunes or sings Jewish music in Hebrew or Yiddish, it is easy to see the smiles on survivors’ faces, the excitement in their expressions while they sing along to familiar tunes, and the sheer happiness and occasional tears that ensue. As a result of our observations at Café Europa, our discussions with survivors, and our knowledge of the MUSIC & MEMORY℠ program, Jewish Family and Career Services (JF&CS) of Atlanta incorporated the MUSIC & MEMORY℠ program into a grant from the Jewish Federation of North America Center for Advancing Holocaust Survivor Care (JFNA). The purpose of the grant is to advance person-centered, trauma informed care (PCTI) to Holocaust survivors. The program has been wildly successful, and has brought great joy to its participants.

MUSIC & MEMORY℠ is a non-profit organization that provides personalized digital music to those who are elderly or infirm, vastly enhancing quality of life. The organization trains nursing home staff and other elder care professionals, as well as family caregivers, 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 impairments to reconnect with the world through music-triggered memories (see musicandmemory.org).

The organization has implemented personalized music programs in hundreds of care organizations throughout the United States and Canada, and a documentary about the organization’s work, Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory, shows the life-changing effects of music on its listeners. Numerous nursing homes and organizations have since become MUSIC & MEMORY℠ Certified Care Organizations, and the organization is broadening its approach to serve individuals in hospice care, adult day care, assisted living, hospitals, and home health care.

JF&CS in Atlanta, Georgia has received certification training to administer and deliver the MUSIC & MEMORY℠ program. Our agency implements the MUSIC & MEMORY℠ program with Holocaust survivors who struggle with cognitive and physical impairments, as well as those who are socially isolated and battling feelings of depression. The program has served more than 20 participants and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

When compiling personalized music playlists for each survivor, we worked with the survivors directly or with their family members to identify each survivor’s preferred music. We accommodated their preferences to include any and all desired genres, artists, and languages, taking special care not to include any music that would trigger traumatic Holocaust memories. Unless specifically requested by a survivor, music from before the 1960’s or from a survivor’s country of persecution was not downloaded.

Once each personalized playlist was completed, the iPod, headphones, and carrying case were delivered to each survivor along with printed instructions detailing how to use and charge the device. Each participant or caregiver received a guided tutorial ensuring they were comfortable using the equipment, and additional training sessions were provided as needed.

One daughter-in-law of a survivor states that the music has “opened up a whole new world in a way I’ve never seen her.” The daughter-in-law, Abby (name changed for privacy), goes on to say that her mother-in-law is “not a happy woman, but when she listens to that music, she’s different.” Abby says that the music “occupies her time, relaxes her, and perks her up.” The survivor “plays [the music] all the time and ‘rocks out’ [with it]”, says Abby. She adds that when her mother-in-law was recently moved to a rehabilitation facility, “She’s singing, [and] rocking in bed.” The survivor’s son remembers from his childhood that his mother used to sing opera, which Abby never knew, and MUSIC & MEMORY℠ has given the survivor access to that musical outlet again. When asked how her mother-in-law, now reliant on a 24-hour caregiver, seems when she listens to the music, Abby simply responded, “happy”.

Likewise, survey results from participants show that all respondents feel happy when listening to the music on their iPods, that the music reminds them of happy memories from a joyous time in their lives, and helps them feel calmer. Survivors also report that listening to the music helps them feel more relaxed, and family caregivers of participants unable to independently complete the surveys report that their loved ones appear calmer when listening to the music than before they listened, that their loved one appears happy and less anxious when listening, and that they feel their loved one is benefiting from the iPod, listing a better spirit overall as one of the main changes brought about by MUSIC & MEMORY℠.

Family caregivers of participants also note that their loved ones are more responsive and calm when listening to their preferred music, and one survivor’s son commented, “The personalized iPod has been an outstanding benefit for my mother. The music provides her great pleasure and comfort.”

Due to the overwhelming success of the program, we plan to continue offering iPods to interested survivors, and have already begun adding and modifying music to distributed iPods upon request.

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