Beloved music can renew lives lost to dementia

BERKELEY — More than 300 years ago, British playwright William Congreve said, “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast” (from “The Mourning Bride,” 1697). While one might speculate that music has always maintained the property to alter emotions, many residents with dementia receive the life-enhancing benefit of music everyday at The Argyle, a non-profit assisted living facility at 4115 W 38th Ave.

Celeste Richardson, director of The Argyle’s Music & Memory program, said, “Music brings folks alive; it sparks happiness. Residents may have dementia or short-term memory issues—they may not even know why they’re living here, but the music taps into their older memories, like when they’d go to dances at Elitch’s Trocadero Ballroom when they were teenagers. A song they might not have heard for 50 years helps trigger memories of who they danced with and how they got there.”

Richardson sees the benefits of the program in folks with paranoia or anxiety and how music changes their mood. “We have a resident who will be crying and very worried about her daughter, but she comes alive when the music starts; she’ll smile and dance or sing. She has a really fun dance move.

“One resident started doing the exact dance steps of swing and the Lindy Hop, but she otherwise didn’t know where she was. A man with dementia tapped his fingers on the table the whole time his music played. One resident seldom left his room, but with his music on, he’d walk the halls.”

A compelling example of the immediate effect of music is portrayed in the 2012 video ( of a man named Henry, who “had suffered from dementia for a decade, was very withdrawn, and spent most of his time alone in his wheelchair, unable to communicate…Until he was given an iPod loaded with music from his era. Suddenly, the man who barely spoke was able to sing his favorite Cab Calloway songs.”

In that video, neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks (author of “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain” and “Awakenings”) says that when Henry listens to his music, he is “in some sense restored to himself. He has remembered who he is, and he has reacquired his identity for a while through the power of music.”

Supported by the whole staff of The Argyle, Music & Memory specialists Richardson and Angela Moore facilitate the program. “We have about 55-60 people on the program,” Moore said. “Most residents come to The Argyle after living on their own or with a spouse or children. They come from all over the country, not just Denver.” About 200 residents live at The Argyle.

The Argyle began its Music & Memory program in June 2015. With a master’s degree in social work, Richardson had been volunteering at The Argyle when she became part of the Music & Memory training staff. Soon after, management realized the true scope of administering the program and asked Richardson to implement it.

Richardson said her main focus is to interview residents to determine who would enjoy being in the program. “It takes one to one-and-a-half hours to discover what music people like or used to like in high school or in their early 20s,” she said.

Dan Cohen, who utilized his background in high-tech training, vocational rehabilitation and social work, created the Music & Memory program in Greater New York in 2006. According to his bio on, Cohen said if someday he were to end up in a nursing home, he would want to be able to listen to his favorite 1960s music. He’d heard a news report about how iPods had grown in popularity and thought why not bring them into nursing homes to provide personalized music for residents?

As of October, there are more than 3,000 certified Music & Memory organizations in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Europe. The Argyle is one of a growing number of communities in Colorado committed to enhancing the quality of life for their residents by becoming Music & Memory certified facilities.

Residents use an iPod Shuffle, which stores hundreds of songs and can be set to play songs in the order of programming or in a random mode. Some residents know how to operate the iPod and are able to recharge it; others need help turning it on and off.

iPods are the property of The Argyle, as are the songs programmed onto them. People donate CDs or music is purchased from the iTunes store. Residents can keep their headphones if they need to move to a different facility, but they are not allowed to take their Shuffles with them.

The goal of the Certified program is to get music to residents at least three times a week.

The amount of time residents listen to music in a given day varies. Moore says that most people leave it on for two or three hours. “We have a woman with severe anxiety and once she puts on her headphones, she’ll leave the music on for six hours.

“The program also creates friendships between residents, and they often share music,” Moore said. “Songs can trigger other music they’d like to have added.”

“We are an assisted living facility,” said Richardson. “Some of our folks might have physical limitations, but mentally they’re completely aware and ‘with it.’ They choose when they want to listen. They might listen just before bedtime because it relaxes them. Some might listen right after lunch, or first thing in the morning.

“Sometimes, though, the music can make some folks agitated and confused, and I did not see that coming [as an outcome of the program]. Those people are not in the program.”

The palliative affect can be dramatic. Richardson related that one person listened before a doctor appointment, to alleviate anxiety. Another resident took his music with him prior to back surgery. “Music for folks with chronic pain and anxiety is as good as it is for folks with dementia,” she said. “It really distracts them from the pain or worries they may be having. It gets their mind focused on something that makes them happy.

“We had a man here who had been at Woodstock. It was fun putting his playlist together. But he had a fall and went to a facility with a higher level of care. When he left, he did not want to give up his iPod.” Richardson provided him with a listing of all his music that he was able to implement at his new care-giving facility.

The Music & Memory website——provides information to help families set up in-home programs. “It’s a way to unite families,” said Richardson.

A resident listening to his music in the hallway, who otherwise wasn’t very talkative, said his favorite music is rock and roll. “Elvis Presley was the king,” he said. “People tell me I have a voice just like Elvis Presley’s when I sing. My favorite group is The Beach Boys and then Buddy Holly. My favorite country and western singer is Johnny Cash.” He wanted to add two “Frankies” to his playlist—Frankie Avalon and Frankie Valli—and Richardson told him she would take care of that.

To make a financial contribution to The Argyle Foundation, or to donate CDs or new iPod Shuffles, call 303-455-9513 or visit

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