To see a person with advanced Parkinson’s disease move or dance freely, or an advanced dementia sufferer to smile and remember their past, would be almost like watching a miracle happen. Yet such ‘miracles’ are taking place around us, due to a program that has been incorporating music (long known for its therapeutic and almost ‘magical’ effects, to help in remembering stories and experiences) into the lives of Dementia and Parkinson’s sufferers.

Music & Memory is the remarkable program consisting of personalised music playlists for people with dementia specifically, more generally for people who are in pain, feeling depressed or isolated, and even for those with severe Parkinson’s, allowing them to ‘unfreeze’ and move. For the past eight years, this program has been helping thousands of individuals living with chronic cognitive and physical impairments in US and Canadian care facilities to reconnect with family, friends and caregivers.

The idea of bringing personalised music to people with dementia is spreading around the world and this wonderful program is now available in Australia, having being introduced by Dr Maggie Haertsch, former nurse turned director and CEO of the Arts Health Institute.

“I think that music is actually a human right. Music predates language…  And now we absolutely need to make sure that music, in such a simple way, is able to be accessible in healthcare environments,” said Dr Maggie Haertsch.

The Music & Memory program, so simple yet so effective, has been found to have many benefits including:
• participants are happier and more social
• relationships among staff, participants and family deepen
• everyone benefits from a calmer, more supportive social environment
• staff regain valuable time previously lost to behaviour management issues
• there is growing evidence that a personalised music program gives professionals one more tool in their effort to reduce reliance on anti-psychotic medications.

Australian ABC’s Catalyst TV program recently aired a story ‘Music on the Brain – The Soundtrack of Our Lives’ that explored the power of music in all our lives – why is it so emotional, so memorable and so powerful that even when much of the brain is gone, music can bring it alive?



As one of the first facilities in Australia to use the Music & Memory program, Leigh Place Aged Care Home featured several residents in Catalyst’s story listening to some of their favourite music and for some, it was the first time they’ve heard it in years. The change in the residents was instant and startling, and the sheer emotional impact took everyone by surprise.
Commonly, people with dementia will start to withdraw into themselves but with the introduction of the Music & Memory program, the music allowed them to reconnect with their family members, as well as to relax them.

One resident, John has limited mobility and shouldn’t really be getting out of his chair by himself. Sometimes, if he’s agitated, he’ll be trying up and down, up and down out of the chair. So instead of the staff having to constantly come over to John, reassure him and ask him to sit down again, they can put the headphones on with his playlist of music. The music quickly relaxes and calms him, and he is at peace which is a much better alternative to drugs.

Betty, another resident featured in Catalyst’s story has developed advanced dementia. To her family’s sadness, Betty now holds little of who she was. She’s become very confused, withdrawn and rarely smiles or shows any emotion at all, until she listens to her music and becomes much more like her old self again.
Another unexpected benefit of the residents hearing the music is that afterwards, they can have a clear and coherent conversation with their carers and families.

The Music & Memory program has also been shown to allow people suffering Parkinson’s disease to move more freely, albeit briefly. Parkinson’s disease is a progressive, degenerative neurological condition that attacks the parts of the brain that allow movement and symptoms include tremors, muscle rigidity and freezing, slowed movement and lethargy.

As featured in the Catalyst story, Professor Meg Morris of the Human Movement Lab has spent years analysing these movement problems and trying to find a way to help. She says for reasons unknown, there is a lack of dopamine in the brain which normally allows movement to be performed large and fast, and balance is affected as well.

John, a Parkinson’s sufferer is shown walking with a freezing gait shuffle where his feet stick to the floor and often starts to walk too fast, almost losing his balance. However, as soon as the music starts, John relaxes and dances freely with a dance instructor as his partner.

Meg has been a pioneer of this therapy and often sees people who never get a break from feeling trapped by their inability to control their own body’s movement until the music comes in, then the movement begins to flow and, with joy, they can dance.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to give a little joy to every person suffering from dementia or Parkinson’s disease, even for just a few minutes each day?

As Dr Maggie Haertsch said of the effects of music on sufferers, “Somehow it’s like a side door into the brain and it just means that they can come alive for that moment. And when those memories come flooding back, it’s connecting them with identity again.”