Five million American families now have a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease, and Elvis Costello has a prescription for them: music. Costello is a new voice for Music & Memory, a charity that supports using music to stimulate memories in people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. His public service announcement for the organization made its debut Feb. 10 on Rolling Stone’s website.
In the PSA, Costello — whose hits include “Alison,” “Oliver’s Army, “Pump It Up” and “Veronica” — holds up headphones and an MP3 player and says, “You may take a music device like this for granted, but for millions of people with Alzheimer’s and dementia, a personal music player loaded with their favorite songs can reconnect them to an entire world.”
Research has shown that, among other benefits, music can trigger positive emotions and calm agitation in people with dementia. It also helps family members connect with their loved one, says Dan Cohen, founder of Music & Memory, which trains staff at health care facilities to set up personalized playlists for patients. “When there’s music, people with dementia are more social,” Cohen says. “It’s amazingly useful for facilitating relationships.”
In the Rolling Stone story accompanying the PSA, Costello notes that he’s seen firsthand how powerfully music can inspire memories and provide solace. When his grandmother, Molly MacManus, developed Alzheimer’s, he says she was able to remember musical moments in her husband’s music career (Costello’s grandfather was a musician, too), even when “she was not always certain about the identities of family members around her in the present moment."
His father, Ross McManus, also suffered from dementia related to Parkinson’s disease, Costello adds. When he was struggling with the disease, sometimes “it was music rather than spoken word that reached him.”
And the best part? It costs next to nothing. “If this were a pill that calmed people down, got them to communicate, and did everything music can do,” Cohen says, “it would be a multimillion-dollar blockbuster.”