Music and Memory: Adult Day Program Helps Individuals with Memory Loss “Come Alive Again”

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Thursday March 10, 2016

A description of a room with cushy recliners, tall windows overlooking a garden where songbirds flit from tree to tree, and patchwork quilts displayed throughout a spacious living area sounds a lot like someone’s home. In a sense it is; it is a home away from home, or a social anchor, for as many as 30 individuals living with some form of memory loss, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. This warm, friendly place is the Visiting Nurse Association of Chittenden and Grand Isle Counties’ Adult Day Program (ADP) at Grand Way Commons in South Burlington. Participants of the program come here during the day to play games, create art projects, garden, strengthen their joints with graceful tai chi exercises, and venture outside for group walks or to take field trips. More than that, this restorative environment is a place for participants to re-live their melodic pasts through music.

Recently, Francesca Creta-Merrill, Manager of the VNA’s ADP in South Burlington, welcomed me into her shared “home,” where I spoke with her about Music and Memory, a non-profit organization founded in 2010 by Social Worker Dan Cohen. His wish to be able to listen to his favorite 60’s music if he were living in a nursing home motivated him to bring iPods, or other digital music technology into such facilities. Thus, the goal of the organization is to “Bring personalized music into the lives of the elderly or infirm through digital music technology, vastly improving quality of life.”

When you hear a specific song from your past, what happens? Maybe you time-travel in your mind, back to your wedding day, senior high school prom, or first date. Research indicates that listening to music increases blood flow to the brain, activating regions involved in long-term memory, producing a calming effect. In 2012, the efforts of Music and Memory were previewed at the Rubin Museum in New York City, in the documentary, Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory. The film features a nursing home resident wearing an iPod, listening to his favorite Cab Calloway songs. He quickly reawakens from his sedate, nearly unresponsive state, singing out-loud in a clear vibrato, as if someone had reset his memory’s circuit breaker.

With a background in Psychology and Gerontology, Creta-Merrill is a certified dementia practitioner, and one of two TimeSlips Certified Facilitators at the ADP. It was Creta-Merrill who brought to Vermont this creative story telling method as a means to encourage individuals with memory loss to express themselves using their imaginations. In response to open-ended questions, participants are free to share anything that comes to mind. “No answer is right or wrong,” she noted during our meeting. A steadfast advocate for the participants of the ADP, Creta-Merrill is also determined to help restore their harmonious pasts. In 2014, she and a number of staff from the VNA attended a workshop about Music and Memory. It was at that workshop where they watched Alive Inside. Inspired by the film, and the mission of Music and Memory, Creta-Merrill set out to bring iPods into the lives of the ADP’s 30 participants. Last fall, she and other staff from the VNA completed the Music and Memory Certification Program, enabling staff to measure set goals for participants, maximize therapeutic benefits, and create and manage digital playlists. The ADP’s certification also affirms the VNA’s commitment to individualized care.

Several states throughout the U.S. have launched Music and Memory, and the organization is now gaining ground in Canada, Europe, and other parts of the world. Here, in Vermont, thirty-one facilities, including all three ADPs in Chittenden County, are certified.

But the effort to re-kindle colorful pasts, “takes more than the equipment,” Creta-Merrill explained. The program requires “an investigation,” she added. Because the participants can’t always remember, or vocalize what kinds of music they like, families and loved ones need to be interviewed. For each participant to therapeutically benefit from personalized music, specific songs, not just the genre, are the essential key to his or her re-awakening experience. For this to happen, Creta-Merrill noted, volunteers are needed, preferably high school or college students. Why? Because they’re technically savvy. (Millennials have no idea what life was like back in the dark ages of dial up internet.) More than downloading a playlist onto an iPod, time, and listening are also core components toward successful outcomes. Individuals suffering from memory loss can quickly become confused and disoriented in time and place; therefore, any sudden disruptions in their routine, including new faces, may provoke behavioral changes, such as suspicion and agitation. She recommends volunteers devote a “solid week” with participants as a way to earn their trust, to get to know them, and to learn when is the best time of day to offer them the iPod. To enable them to fully benefit, to “come alive again,” Creta-Merrill described, “Timing is crucial.”

Two participants at the ADP at Grand Way Commons are currently enrolled in Music and Memory. When I asked Creta-Merrill how music has benefited them, she said, “Soothing, calming, centering.” That is precisely in concert with what the ADP prides itself on: a safe, protective environment. I had the opportunity to see, up close, the benefits of a personalized music program when a participant slipped one of his favorite classical records onto a turntable, then lowered the needle into a groove of the sleek-black record. He started humming to the effortlessly played piano solo, snapping his fingers, performing a conductor’s dance – his arms sweeping up high, carving the air, then closing in together, as if pulling taffy.

Yes, as Creta-Merrill has long maintained about the participants, “They’re [still] capable of enjoying life.”

To donate iPods, or to inquire about volunteer opportunities at the ADP, please contact Francesca Creta-Merrill, 802-862-6610, You may also contact Diane Olechna, 802-658-1900, ext. 4407, For more information about Music and Memory, and the Adult Day Program, go to: and

SOURCE: Melissa Cronin, Contributor