IU uses music to evoke memories in elderly dementia patients: BTN LiveBIG

University of Indiana's Music and Memory program at Better Day Club. Clockwise from left: Zoe Schrader, Anna Lubbers (both students), Dr. Jennie Gubner, and Joy.

IU uses music to evoke memories in elderly dementia patients: BTN LiveBIG

The cheerful melody of Frank Sinatra’s “The Way You Look Tonight” melted away a persistent anxiety for one elder participant of the Music and Memory program in Bloomington, Indiana.

Indiana University senior Sarah Bobby worked with the man at Better Day Club, an adult day program for individuals experiencing early to moderate stages of Alzheimer’s or dementia.

“He closed his eyes, sat back, and started singing along to the song,” Bobby says. “The director of Better Day Club, Cathleen [Weber], and the gentleman’s wife were brought to tears because they couldn’t believe how relaxed he was.”

Bobby met the man through a service learning course at IU called Music and Memory. Taught by Jennie Gubner, visiting lecturer in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, the course takes an ethnomusicological approach to interaction with individuals with dementia and Alzheimer’s.

“Ethnomusicologists study all the ways that music is meaningful and all the ways that music is more than just sound and more than just entertainment,” says Gubner. She describes an ethnographic perspective as “an emphasis on the fieldwork encounter, oral history and telling personal one-on-one stories as opposed to a more hard-science, data-analytical approach.”

Gubner’s students learn about ethnomusicology and how music is connected to health and wellness in different cultures around the world. They read articles about music’s connection to dementia and Alzheimer’s and ethnomusicological fieldwork on music’s relationship to the brain.

Then, students conduct fieldwork of their own. In Gubner’s spring course at IU, 18 students worked with two certified Music and Memory facilities — Better Day Club and Gentry Park Senior Living. They interacted with elders and their families to learn about meaningful musical experiences and create personalized playlists. Finally, the students told the stories of their interactions and experiences by creating films.

“The music allowed the students, the participants and their family members to interact on a more intimate level than some of them may have experienced in years,” Bobby recalls. “It just blows my mind that music can allow for that type of connection between family members.”

Gubner first introduced the Music and Memory course at Colby College in Maine. She was inspired by a 2014 documentary called “Alive Inside” which details the work of Dan Cohen, founder of the nonprofit organization Music and Memory.

Upon her arrival in Bloomington, Gubner worked to get the two local facilities certified in Cohen’s program, an endeavor that costs around $1,000 per facility, covering staff training and the cost of iPods and equipment. Today, veterans of her course are continuing that work through their self-formed Music and Memory club in Bloomington.

In her work, Gubner found that music can even help retrieve memories, a phenomenon she describes as “how music lights up all these pathways in our brain capable of connecting elders to ‘lost’ or misplaced experiences.”

Gubner highlights this incredible connection during her course, but she hopes her students walk away with an even broader understanding of the benefits of music.

“Really what this is about is the sum of all the hundreds of moments from spending time together — of creating these moments of joy, of wellness, of health,” Gubner says. “What we really need to do is rethink how we’re spending time with elders in our lives, how we can better engage with elders in our communities, and how we can encourage everyone to value these kinds of non-pharmacological programs that emphasize creativity, and really personalized creativity.”

Gubner says she will welcome a new class of students to Music and Memory in the fall. She’s also raising money for the work through a GoFundMe campaign.

“The more I [teach this course], the more excited I am to be doing this work,” she says. “The more it develops, the more I see potential for how this project can grow, and that pushes me forward.”

Anyone interested in donating an old or new iPod to Music and Memory can send them to:

Jennie Gubner
800 E 3rd St. Rm 213
Bloomington, IN, 47405

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