Music and Memory

The author visiting one of the residents in her program

Yaakov was considered by the nursing home staff to be a vegetable. A massive stroke, plus a subsequent choking incident, had left his brain so starved for oxygen that his doctor described him as brain dead. The head nurse could hardly believe me when I told her that music had awakened Yaakov, who hadn’t connected to another human being in years.

All this happened at the local nursing home, in my hometown of Tzfat, Israel. A certified Israeli Chaplain, I work with elders in nursing homes, helping to reconnect with people who have suffered the losses and ravages of aging by listening to them, providing validation and support, and helping them to find their own spiritual resources. One of my main tools is music, which helps to bridge the gap with the outside world, as dementia slowly subtracts memories and identity from life’s equations.

A high percentage of elderly Israelis currently live in nursing homes, which can often be impersonal; the institutional quality of these places frequently adds to residents’ feelings of isolation and confusion. The losses of aging, which can include dear friends, family members and life partners, a sense of purpose and hope, and cognitive and physical declines, are exacerbated by unfamiliar surroundings, and daily routines often revolve around the needs of the institution, as opposed to the needs of the individual residents. Cutting-edge nursing homes are switching their approach to “Person-Centered Care”, where the unique individual preferences and needs of the residents are a priority.  In Israel, many of today’s nursing home residents are holocaust survivors, and/or veterans of Israel’s War for Independence, which just adds to sense of urgency in improving their lives.

Judaism teaches that there are 10 types of song, which have their spiritual source in 10 types of joy.  In the Rebbe Nachman story, “The Seven Beggars”, this is explained through a metaphor. The soul of Israel is likened to a princess who has been struck by 10 types of poisoned arrows, which represent the various spiritual, emotional, and physical wounds that we all have suffered. Each person’s healing comes through her own musical channels and is very personal. In the story, the tzaddik can heal the princess, because he knows all 10 types of songs. He uses pulses to determine which type of song will heal her soul. As a professional musician for the last 18 years, I have witnessed firsthand the power of music to open hearts and minds. Music crosses the borders that separate us from one another, and in some cases, breaks down the blockages that separate us from our own true selves.

“Alive Inside”, an inspiring and award-winning documentary, tells the story of Dan Cohen and his non-profit organization, Music & Memory, which is dedicated to bringing the healing power of personalized music to nursing home residents and those suffering from dementia. With thousands of programs across America and Europe, Music & Memory trains staff to create personalized playlists, which are then loaded on to MP3 players and made available for daily listening. The results are amazing. Many scientific studies have shown that residents in Music & Memory programs are happier, healthier, and more connected to their environment. Fewer falls, shorter hospital stays, and a marked reduction in the use of anti-psychotic medications are just some of the benefits.

It turns out that the area of the brain least affected by dementia is the one that is responsible for both our memory center and our music processing center. This is parallel to Jewish teachings: some sources have the Chambers of Music and Teshuva (repentance, or return) as next door neighbors in Heaven, where other sources consider them to be the very same place.

After working with the staff to make a Music & Memory-style program in Tzfat, I was privileged to be part of creating 5 pilot programs, which are officially bringing this life-changing work to Israel. I have documented these pilots in several videos, including “A Bridge Across Time”, which tells the story of Ruti, a former combat medic with the Palmach, and “Shoshanka Speaks”, which shows a nursing home resident who regained the power of speech through our programs. My dream is to eventually have a Music & Memory program in every nursing home in Israel.


Yaakov was lying in his wheelchair with his eyes closed, as always. He, and several other residents who were connected to feeding tubes, were lined up against one wall of the ward. Closed off inside of themselves, they lived their lives in total isolation from the outside world. In Yaakov’s case, this was even sadder, as he was relatively young, in his 60’s. A former engineer from Russia, he was left with no family and only one visitor. As the music played, I saw a tear roll down his face. No one believed that it was possible.

I later tried putting headphones on Yaakov, connected to an MP3 player with a variety of Russian songs, and sat near him with a headphone splitter, listening along. The first few songs passed with no response. I stood close to Yaakov, in his line of sight, and waited. As a new song came on, his eyes opened. He met my gaze and allowed me to see him. He was still there, hidden deeply from the world. The music seemed to enter straight into his heart. The man who had seemed like a tightly clenched fist suddenly opened. He began to weep, never breaking our gaze. I felt a sense of awe, almost fearsome. I kept listening, moving a little to the beat so that he could see that I was sharing the music with him. I held his hand as he let go and allowed himself to breathe, to cry, to be.

This breakthrough with Yaakov changed the way the staff related to him. They spoke with him more, and suddenly all the residents were seen with new eyes—even those who were considered too far gone. This musical connection brought a sense of hope and purpose to a place where workers struggle to feel like they are making a difference. In a place like this one, where a feeling of helplessness can turn into a dangerous hopelessness, a little joy, a connected gaze, a song, a dance, tapping toes and recovered memories can change everything. A little light pushes away so much darkness.