Video: Chicago folk-music school helps memory loss via music

By Grace Austin

In the United States, 5.5 million people suffer from early onset Alzheimer’s, a form of dementia. Music therapy for those with memory loss has been touted by medical professionals, studies and journals as a particularly effective way to counter the effects of the debilitating disease.

Studies have shown that music memory is in a part of the brain unaffected by Alzheimer’s and memory loss. According to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, “rhythmic and other well-rehearsed responses require little to no cognitive or mental processing. They are influenced by the motor center of the brain that responds directly to auditory rhythmic cues.”

Thus, a person’s ability to engage in music remains intact late into the disease process because engagement with music does not require cognition.

A new music program in Ravenswood at the Old Town School of Folk Music is helping some people cope with Alzheimer’s and other forms of early memory loss. Called the Memory Singers, the weeks-long pilot program is helping people who have memory loss and their caregivers recall old memories and create new connections.

The Memory Singers grew out of a sing-a-long program at senior centers off-site in Chicago. It was inspired by a MacPhail Center for Music program earlier piloted in Minnesota that also had a dual enrollment for caregivers and those experiencing memory loss.

“It just clicked. This is what Chicago needs; we were inspired by the work they were doing in Minneapolis, and wanted to bring it here to Chicago. So, it took about a year to pull all the resources together to find the right personnel, and to activate the networks of people in service of this population, and it proved to be very successful,” said Scott Lundius, education director at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

And that success comes from a basis in science.
Music is also tied to particular events and memories, which can evoke emotions. Emotions can be important, as those with memory loss lose connections to their loved ones, according to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America.

“Music memory center is located just inside the ear, and it’s the last place to be affected by the progressive plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s disease. And since it’s free of that disease, it can actually allow people to tap into the present moment in a way they have little other opportunities to,” said Lundius.

“Our favourite songs transport us largely by conjuring surrogate emotions: the neural apparatus of emotion, reward, autonomic and motor programmes is hard-wired into our experience of music and this may have been the very point of music, in evolutionary terms,” said Camilla N. Clark and Jason D. Warren in a July 2015 Brain article.

The Memory Singers’ songs capture points in the participants’ life, such as youth and young adulthood, like “You’re a Grand Ol’ Flag,” music from the Sound of Music, and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” The class uses only familiar songs, since unfamiliar songs are shown to have little to no effect on those with memory loss, according to a 2005 study about music recognition and Alzheimer’s.

Representatives from the school hope to move forward with more classes and programs around the city.

“I hope that more people come as they hear about it, because as people hear about this program and they find out how truly rewarding it is, that they will come and join us and that the program will keep growing,” said Mary Grimes-Kelley, Memory Singers teacher. “ … It can go to another location and have memory choirs for the caregiver and for the people with early stages of memory loss. My hope it expands because it is so rewarding.”

Photo Caption: The Old Town School of Folk Music is piloting a program for those with memory loss and their caregivers. (Grace Austin/MEDILL)