Matching music to memories for Minnesota dementia, Alzheimer's patients

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At The Farmstead senior living center in Andover, Minnesota, nearly all the residents from the memory care community join Barbara Lee Friedman for a 60-minute trip down memory lane. 

“They’ve lost so much,” said Ahna Lloyd, The Farmstead life enrichment director. “They’ve lost family. They’ve lost friends. They’ve lost cars and houses, now independence, so music is kind of that common ground that common memory that they have.”

“It is so exciting to be in a career where you are in the moment,” said Friedman. “That’s all we have is the moment.”

Wayne Margotto sits beside his 92-year-old mother, Bert.

“Oh, I love singing, hearing good music,” said Bert. 

Together, they enjoy songs Wayne recalls his mom teaching him when he was growing up - long before she was diagnosed with dementia.

“Mom is gracefully declining,” said Wayne. “Which is both good and bad. She’s becoming a shell of my mom; that’s the part that hardest for the family. She doesn’t remember who we are anymore a lot of times and I have to remind her.”

With Friedman's careful song selections, Bert and many of her neighbors remember the words, often from songs from their youth. More than a simple singalong, Friedman tailors her lineup based on the various ages in her group. The requests come from people who are increasingly younger. 

“Even people with memory care issues can learn, can sing, can respond and answer questions,” said Friedman. “So that’s why I do more than just singing.”

Friedman is quick to point out while she is not a trained music therapist, she has been sharing therapeutic music for 54 of her 67 years. It started when she was 13. She recalls her perspective on life changing when her father took her to perform at a nursing home and later when she performed with her sister.  

With undergraduate degrees in music, psychology and history, plus a Master’s in counseling, Friedman spent her career as a life enrichment coordinator at senior centers - often with guitar in hand, sharing tunes from the late 1900s through the ‘70s. Time and time again, she has witnessed lyrics link to the past. The music’s impact on a stroke survivor, who was born in 1910, stands out in her memory.

“I don’t like to sing the older songs because for some it’s too far back, but for this person it fit,” said Friedman. “And out of the blue for the first time in months, they started singing the song. And the staff came running, ‘Oh my gosh! Joe is singing ‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart,’ oh my gosh, he’s talking!’ Because it was months of not talking."

“I was beside myself,” said Friedman. “I just thought ‘God, I hit the right song.’” 

The overall concept is far from new. Multiple studies have proven for people in the early stages of dementia, music therapy can help maintain cognitive levels and enhance overall brain functioning. From Friedman's view, even the most advanced Alzheimer’s and non-verbal seniors have voices that are beautiful and deserve to be heard.

“The music holds the words together. So you’ve got, ‘Let me call you sweetheart,’” said Friedman. “They couldn’t say, ‘Let me call you sweetheart’ easily, but if it’s the music that holds those words together, then you can sing it.”

Within five minutes of the hour-long singalong, several in the room - including Bert - will have no recollection of being there. But the infectious energy, laughs and smiles prove there's plenty of joy in living in the moment. 

“In the moment, that’s what they really like because that’s all they have,” said Friedman. “That’s all they have.”

Friedman is semi-retired, performing 25 gigs a month at hospice locations, senior living centers and hospitals. She says seniors are the only audience, she's ever wanted.