Community Papers

Music helps stir up memories

Karen Yamazaki has been sharing stories and memories through the power of song since 2008 with the residents of Poplar Ridge Pavilion. Yamazaki is a music therapist and uses her craft to evoke memories and improve overall wellbeing of the seniors. - Sheri Regnier
Karen Yamazaki has been sharing stories and memories through the power of song since 2008 with the residents of Poplar Ridge Pavilion. Yamazaki is a music therapist and uses her craft to evoke memories and improve overall wellbeing of the seniors.
— image credit: Sheri Regnier

Remember when Gene Autry honky-tonked or Judy Garland crooned over the air waves?

Many Poplar Ridge residents lived through those years and with gentle encouragement from Karen Yamazaki, are able to share the songs along with memories of a golden past.

Yamazaki is a music therapist and for five years has brought the extended care seniors together in weekly gatherings of sing-a-longs, percussion sessions,  and in some cases, one-on-one sharing of melodies.

“Music itself is communication about emotion,” said Yamazaki. “For people who have difficulty speaking or dementia, when I play a song they’ll recognize it and start singing the chorus.

“Quite often a few songs seem to oil things and they are better able to express thoughts and ideas.”

As an accredited music therapist, Yamazaki uses the creative process inherent in musical participation to assist the seniors, many stricken with dementia and neurological disorders, to improve their mental, social, and emotional well-being.

Yamazaki recalled a gentleman who lives in the Pavilion and carries only a single word into conversations related to challenges with mechanics of speech, including an inability to move his lips and lack of supportive breath.

“But I can play ‘There is a tavern in this town,’ and the fellow is singing without effort,” she said. “It is amazing because he is fluent for the entire verse whereas regular speech for him is just one word.”

Yamazaki’s twice a week afternoon sessions are sometimes taken into the resident’s room if the person is unable to join the group, and strumming songs on the guitar specifically selected for the senior provides intimate comfort for sharing of stories.

“The most important thing is the music has to be something you like for the best effect,” said Yamazaki.

“If I can identify a type of music or singer, quite a few enjoy old county western, I will share the songs in their room.”

She has heard many stories about decades-old memories such as a country song called “Golden Slippers,” reminding a senior of dancing to her father’s fiddle during hard times growing up in the prairies, or classical Beethoven symphonies stirring up another’s memory of attending concerts in England with her mother.

“One of the beauties of music therapy is that it can bring all of the residents together regardless of their level of dementia. And it’s fun for me to see them singing or tapping their foot.”

Research indicates that music therapy can improve physical comfort, lift the spirits and improve responses from those in late stages of dementia, although why this happens remains unanswered.

“They haven’t figured out why it is working,” she said. “But seeing how these folks really focus in a music session and how they are alive and really bright is just wonderful to see.”

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