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music holds the key...

Caitlin's post - Fall 2017

My name is Caitlin. I am a student at Evergreen State College studying neuropsychology. In September of 2017, I was hired by Sound Connections as one of two interns to volunteer in a care facility in Thurston County participating in the Music and Memory Program. I was interested in seeing how music might improve a person's quality of life in an environment that is often understaffed and overworked. But most of all, I was excited to share a common passion for music with a population of people that don't get enough interaction with the outside world.

At the care facility, we provide personalized music playlists on iPod shuffles to residents in the Music and Memory Program. We keep the iPods in a locked cabinet organized by a number system to keep names confidential and the equipment safe from damage. A typical day begins for a volunteer with putting on a name tag, organizing ipod shuffles with their assigned headphones, and distributing them to the appropriate residents for two hours at a time. Every resident listens to music differently. Some prefer a speaker, while others need help putting the headphones on and adjusting the volume. Often times, residents can be difficult to locate because they are doing other activities in the facility or they are sleeping. We try to distribute the ipods at times when most residents are available. We can adjust music on the Ipods when seasons change (e.g. Christmas music) or when a resident needs something different. We can also look at detailed records of the residents to learn more about music interests and history. It is our goal to connect people with music and we understand that this connection can be different for everyone.

Music has a special connection with the brain. The Cerebellum, which is the most primitive part of the brain, takes in sensory information (stimulus), like music, from the outside world and processes it into a chemical signal. This signal transfers to the Thalamus where an emotional response to the stimulus takes place. The signal can also go to a number of places in the brain depending on the emotional response and needs. Most importantly, the signal can travel to the hippocampus where our memories are stored. An emotional response takes place before we even make a connection to our memories. As interns, we look for people's unique emotional connections with music because we understand that neurological disorders or damage can disrupt memories and basic life skills. For many residents in the facility, food has lost taste and the outside world is confusingly different, but music still makes them feel something personal.

Music's effect on the brain is still a puzzling research topic. As interns, we make an effort to educate ourselves on what we do know about the effects of music on older populations who are often struggling with various forms of dementia. I found Teepa Snow's informative dementia videos to be helpful in working with this population of people. I learned that rhythm is a skill that is often preserved even in more severe forms of dementia. A book called Dancing with Rose by Lauren Kessler, was extremely insightful and taught me the importance of adapting to a person's altered reality when they struggle with dementia. In addition, my internship group met weekly to discuss progress in the facility, books and media we are researching, and goals to enhance the music and memory program.

In the two months I worked at the facility, I had a number of meaningful experiences with the residents. Many were high-functioning, meaning that they didn't struggle with any abnormal cognitive decline. I didn't expect to see much of an impact on these people when introducing music, but many residents commented on how excited they were to get their music that day. I could see how music lit up their faces and impacted their emotional well-being. The truth is, music impacts everyone. You don't have to have dementia to witness the positive effects. One resident I worked with struggled communicating verbally and always refused music when I brought the headphones into their room. We respect a resident's right to refuse the ipod shuffle for any reason, but we try to understand why they might be refusing. Eager to understand, I tried asking, "Would you like to listen to your music today?" without having the headphones in my hand. Shockingly, they said "yes". The problem was having uncomfortable headphones, not the music itself. I resolved the issue by bringing in a speaker.

Working with Sound Connections has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have had. Collaborating with a group of people who are passionate in providing music to older populations has enhanced my knowledge in neuropsychology and music therapy. I've learned that music is a powerful tool and it can have positive effects on everyone who uses it. After my studies, I plan to work as a therapist providing alternative non-pharmacological methods, such as music therapy, in hopes of improving overall quality of life for those with neurological and psychological abnormalities.

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