To create the perfect personalized playlist for someone with dementia, music that deeply connects the individual to meaningful memories, you need a few important ingredients: a compassionate, thoughtful listener who can discover what music matters most; a love of the chase to find the exact, right song; and a solid knowledge of how and where to track it down.
Two music aficiandos, Letitia Rogers and Will Erickson, volunteers at Lemon Grove Care Center in San Diego, fit that description well. Alongside Dietary Service Director Judy Ely, who coordinates the facility’s Music & Memory iPod program, Rogers and Erickson form the team of musical detectives that enables residents to reconnect with their worlds through personalized iPod playlists.
Finding the Music That Truly Connects
“Just any music will not be as meaningful to an individual as the music that truly connects to their life,” says Rogers, a San Diego native who spent two decades in film and television production, often digging through music libraries to find the perfect song to define the mood and feel of Hollywood films. “Jazz, but Nancy Wilson, not Miles Davis. Country, but Willie Nelson, not Gene Autry. These things make a difference when you’re hoping to connect a person to themselves.”
“The core of the program is finding the music that fits the person—often a very difficult task,” agrees Erickson, a retired La Jolla Country Day School teacher and former classical DJ, who, along with Rogers, credits Ely as the team’s master music sleuth and source of inspiration. “But when someone’s face lights up—when music and identity meet in the depths of consciousness—it is an extraordinary moment.”
Both Rogers and Erickson were inspired to seek out Music & Memory volunteer opportunities near San Diego after discovering the YouTube Henry clip from Alive Inside: The Story of Music & Memory. Executive Director Dan Cohen helped them connect with Ely, and both were soon hooked by their experience working with her and the residents.
Changing Lives a Two-way Street
“I love the interaction,” says Rogers. “I find so many of the residents to be undiscovered or forgotten treasures. Many have lived interesting lives, and my inquiries about music inevitably entail a discussion of their lives.
“The process of finding the right music for that person is an adventure for me,” she continues. “I get to pull from my own knowledge as well as dive into areas I’m not familiar with. I learn about new music as I go. It’s a two-way street in many ways.”
Erickson enjoys serving as a sounding board for Ely’s ideas, searching for music and developing friendships with the residents. One man, in particular, shares the former DJ’s love and knowledge of classical music, and Erickson makes a point to spend time with him and bring CDs. “When he shook my hand after my first visit and didn’t let go—after we had made this connection through music—I realized I had something to offer,” says Erickson.
Expanding Awareness of Music & Memory
Inspired by their experiences, both Rogers and Erickson have helped to expand awareness of Music & Memory beyond their Lemon Grove commitment. Erickson has started a Music & Memory program at Somerford Place Encinitas, an Alzheimer’s assisted living facility near his home. In March, Rogers promoted Music & Memory and garnered some contributions at a gallery reception for her first-ever art show.
“Pairing my primarily bright and positive paintings with such a great cause made for a good combination,” says Rogers. “It was very easy for me to share my enthusiasm since, honestly, I’d have promoted this around the world without ever having volunteered! But people are especially moved to hear my first-hand accounts of the effect of a truly personalized playlist on quality of life.”
“An Amazing Gift”
Rogers loves to share stories like this one about the first resident she got to know, a bright, politically interested woman in her ‘80s, with dementia:
“One day I was told she was a bit agitated. I took the iPod to her room and found her quite frustrated. She was not sure where she was or why she was there or who I was. ‘What use am I?,’ she said. ‘I didn’t even vote in the last election.’ I said she was interesting to me and I enjoyed knowing her. She agreed to try the iPod. As she started to listen to the music, she began to smile and sway. Then she took off the headphones and held them toward me. She had switched our roles and become a giver of care to me. I was profoundly moved.
“There’s the moment you hear or see that your music choices have a positive effect,” Rogers adds. “To watch a resident, withdrawn and quiet in their wheelchair, sit up straight and start nodding and clapping to the music in their ears is an amazing gift. I supposes it’s just as much about giving as receiving.”
Want to find out how you can become a Music & Memory volunteer in your community? We’d love to have you join us! Please fill out our Volunteer application and we’ll be in touch, soon.
Founded in 2010, Music & Memory is a non-profit organization that brings personalized music into the lives of the elderly or infirm through digital music technology, vastly improving quality of life.