Music and Memory

Many people are familiar with using rhymes and songs to help remember information. But can melodies and harmonies help maintain—and even improve—the memory skills of aging individuals with dementia?

Sheila Konar certainly thinks so. “The benefits of music therapy on mental health are astounding. We’ve always been interested and involved in this field as well as in giving back to the community.”

To that end, Konar donated a major gift in 2011 on behalf of the Konar Family Foundation to the music therapy program at Nazareth College. “Nazareth has always been socially minded and involved in community service, so this grant was a given.”

Among other initiatives, the gift enabled the creation of a special music therapy group for persons with Alzheimer’s. Konar was personally interested in supporting this endeavor since her own husband was diagnosed with the disease.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. At present, there is no cure and the disease worsens as it progresses. As research into medications and other treatment options continues, professors at Nazareth were interested in studying the effectiveness of individually tailored small group music therapy sessions for those living with Alzheimer’s. And it was the donation from the Konar Family Foundation that kick-started the program.

The music therapy group at Nazareth was led by Associate Professor of Music Therapy Betsey King, Ph.D., and Assistant Clinical Professor of Music Therapy Laurie Keough, M.S.Ed.—both of whom are board certified music therapists with extensive experience in the field.

“With the help of the Rochester chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, we recruited enough participants and caregivers for 12 sessions in the fall 2011 semester,” explains King. The sessions involved singing songs (occasionally combined with sign language), playing instruments, and building memory skills through repetition and engagement.

The research was compiled throughout the semester, and the preliminary results and analysis indicated significant improvement in areas of concern for persons with Alzheimer’s. “Improvement is especially meaningful for people who have a progressive debilitating disease,” explains Keough. “Intervention is often necessary simply to maintain skills in this context.”

Examples of improvements included increased social interaction among group members, active participation, and ability to participate in more complex musical interactions.

In response to the encouraging results, the music therapy group continued to meet during the spring 2012 semester. “Not only did we see changes in the participants on account of the direct stimulation of music therapy, but what’s most promising is the carryover reported from this 50-minute session to the world outside of this room,” says Keough. Indeed, the participants’ caregivers reported back on their loved ones’ positive affects, increased activity, and energy levels.

Most surprisingly, notes Keough, was not just the maintenance of existing skills, but the building and development of the participants’ memory skills. “At the beginning, we saw anxiety, confusion, and disorientation, but that gradually faded with the weekly sessions. The structure remains the same, but each session is different and builds on the skills from the previous week. It’s incredible to see so much improvement and growth in the participants.”

And so the question now from both the participants’ caregivers and the music therapists is the same: What’s next?

“As we increase the visibility of Nazareth’s music therapy program and educate the health care agencies and facilities in our community about music therapy,” says King, “we can provide new jobs for our graduates, varied clinical training for our students, and services for underrepresented and underserved populations. In a real and tangible way, this generous gift from the Konar Family Foundation will enable us to do just that.”

Music therapy group

Clockwise from top left: Associate Professor of Music Therapy Betsey King, music therapy student Theresa Lemmerman ’09, ’12G, and Assistant Clinical Professor of Music Therapy Laurie Keough lead participants in Nazareth’s music therapy group for people with Alzheimer's.