By Anna Kultin

Photo by Eric Braddy

You can see the transformation: in their animated faces, their awareness of their surroundings, and even in their body language. They are smiling, tapping their feet and bobbing their heads to the music, eyes half-closed. These veterans are being healed by a personalized music soundtrack, effectively a musical therapy being delivered via their headphones.

Student nurse Kimberly Pavela first heard about the Music and Memory program through the Red Cross. She works with veterans at the Spokane Veterans Home, which implemented the program. Medical staff use a small iPad Shuffle loaded with a custom music playlist for each veteran. Kimberly was inspired by the dramatic changes in those who were suffering from severe dementia, Alzheimer’s, anxiety and other cognitive issues. “We see veterans who barely speak. When you talk to them it is like talking to a wall”, Pavela said. “But once they put on headphones and hear their favorite music, they open up and start talking after weeks and weeks of being silent.”

Years of extensive neuroscience research have demonstrated the therapeutic effect of personalized music on the brain. It reconnects and unlocks deep, often seemingly lost memories, calms chaotic brain activity, helps people focus on the present and become more open to interactions with others.

“Music hits certain spots in the brain that trigger memory,” Pavela added. “You have memories associated with songs, such as a song you danced to at your wedding or a song you always listened to as a kid. If you listen to that music when you are older, you still have those memories in your brain.”

Deb Davis, Service to Armed Forces Coordinator with the Red Cross, says the goal of the Music and Memory program is to use music as a powerful medicine to preserve veterans’ memories. “It is amazing how veterans with cognitive issues, with impaired brain chemistry, are able to reconnect with the world,” Davis said. “Our plan is to invite more volunteers and veterans’ families to help select the songs and put together a custom playlist for each veteran.”

“It’s even more powerful when there is human interaction. Nurses and families help tailor the music for veterans,” notes Tom Delaney, a psychologist and volunteer at the Red Cross.

More than one year ago, Megan Snow, Executive Director at American Red Cross serving the Greater Inland Northwest, first embraced the passion of the student nurse volunteers. With the support of the director of the Veterans Home, Shane Price, the Red Cross began to implement the Music and Memory program. Now the enthusiastic team has a new goal: to provide iPods, headphones and custom playlists for each of the one hundred residents in the Veterans Home.

“The Music and Memory Program,” Snow added, “has the ability to have a profound and personal impact on each of the residents we work with; maybe more so than any other activity we are engaged in right now. We can immediately see the difference we are making with the veterans when they listen to meaningful songs from their past.”

For information and assistance about veterans and their families please contact a local Red Cross office.

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