Monday, October 22, 2018     Volume: 19, Issue: 33

Santa Maria Sun / Music

The following article was posted on May 4th, 2016, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 17, Issue 9 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 17, Issue 9

Country Oaks Care Center raises residents' quality of life with help from Music and Memory


Country Oaks Care Center Activities Director Randi Vargas has worked at the elder care facility for more than 15 years now, she told the Sun, and one of many things she’s noticed is the power of meaningful reconnections with memories, and the joy it brings to the residents there.

As more and more residents, many in their 80s and 90s, enter the care center with Alzheimer’s and dementia, it’s harder for them to reconnect with their memories in a lucid way. But thanks to a program called Music and Memory, in which Country Oaks Care Center is a participant, the residents there have a powerful tool to help them do just that.

“Over my time here I began to see a pattern, that the elderly—especially with Alzheimer’s and dementia—tend to revert back to when they were younger,” Vargas explained. “Maybe it’s when they were teenagers, or maybe they were in the war, or maybe it’s when they had their kids, so their long-term memory isn’t compromised, but their short-term memory is. So when they listen to their music, maybe they remember what they heard at the prom, or what their parents used to sing to them.”

Country Oaks’ owners John Henning, a Ph.D. psychologist, and Sharon Henning, who holds a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy, first became aware of music’s remarkable ability to reconnect patients with their memories after viewing the film Alive Inside, Vargas explained. That movie inspired them to reach out to the organization Music and Memory, which was founded by Dan Cohen, the executive director of the film.

The care center just received a care package from Music and Memory as part of the program’s first phase, a case study through UC Davis. The package included 15 iPods, iTunes gift cards, a dedicated laptop computer, headphones, and charger chords.

“We are conducting interviews with our residents and their families to learn about what kind of music they like, or what they listened to when younger,” Vargas said. “We’re here to make their life as pleasurable as possible, and if music therapy can do that, that would be amazing.”

Vargas is the Music and Memory coordinator for Country Oaks, and she and a number of staffers there are certified for the program. After the interviews, they tailor playlists to each resident and fill up their iPods with music they’ve loved across a lifetime.

This could include a lot of the old crooners, like Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby, as well as leading jazz ladies like Doris Day or Ella Fitzgerald. But, Vargas said, there are also those who grew up with the twang of country stars like Hank Williams or Patsy Cline. There’s always those who enjoy a good Mozart string quartet or a Beethoven symphony as well.

The profound effect the music has on the residents is apparent, Vargas said, no matter how long they have left.

“There was a lady here not too long ago who has now passed, but we personalized a list for her, and put the music on,” she said. “She wasn’t talking or moving or anything, but when we put the music on for her, she was smiling, she started tapping here feet to the music, and even answered a few yes or no questions.

“She passed away a couple of days later, but even for a brief time she enjoyed it and was able to remember those memories,” she added. “Because with Alzheimer’s and dementia, the place in the brain where we interpret the music is kind of the last to be touched by those diseases.”

Music is processed through several layers of cortices in the brain, and neural pathways degraded by the diseases are bypassed by connections made long ago through musical cognition. That’s why Country Oaks Care Center residents are able to enjoy calming moments, whether they elicit laughter or tears.

For caregivers like Vargas, Music and Memory is a powerful program for enriching the lives of her patients, and it may be helpful even beyond just that. 

“Also, the ultimate goal is to substitute these psychotropic medications with musical therapy, so they don’t need all this chemical stuff in their body,” she said. “It’s actually what Dan Cohen had found in his work, in a lot of places they substituted the psychotropics with musical therapy. Now, did it work in every case? No, but it did work in a lot of cases.”

Arts Editor Joe Payne wishes he had this information years ago to help ease his Grandma Hilda’s mind before her passing. Contact him at

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