Elvis Costello first witnessed the power of music on Alzheimer’s and dementia sufferers in his own grandmother, Molly MacManus. Her husband, Costello’s grandfather, had been a musician and she was able to hold on to memories of key events in his career. “She could recall both slights and achievement from many years earlier when she was not always certain about the identities of family members around her in the present moment,” he tells Rolling Stone.
It was this experience that inspired “Veronica,” an urgent-yet-optimistic song that he had cowritten with Paul McCartney and topped off with trumpet playing for his 1989 album Spike. “Veronica sits in her favorite chair and she sits very quiet and still,” he sings. “And they call her a name that they never get right.”
“When I wrote ‘Veronica,’ it was in the hope that the loops and misfires of recollection in which my grandmother was often trapped were in some way comforting to her,” he says. “It was a wildly hopeful song about a dismal subject.”
He’d hinted at the personal nature of the song in the intro and outro to its music video, expressing that Alzheimer’s was “something we don’t understand, not yet anyway.” Now he’s appearing in a video that supports Music & Memory, a charity that helps people suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia by playing them personalized playlists of songs that could trigger memories. “The experience of dementia and Alzheimer’s in my family has given me a chance to appreciate how the elusive and fragile mechanism of memory can be attended and even ministered through music,” Costello says. It’s a concept that was the subject of a six-and-a-half–minute YouTube video that became a viral hit, with musicians like Carole King and Kenny Chesney throwing their support behind the initiative.
The organization was founded by social worker Dan Cohen, who in 2006 brought an iPod to nursing home residents in Long Island, New York. Cohen had heard on NPR that iPods had been a hit with younger generations, but not older ones. He tried playing residents music by their favorite artists and they eventually reacted to certain songs. Cohen decided to focus his work on finding songs that resonated with Alzheimer’s and dementia sufferers on a personal level and saw that people were more responsive with music. He obtained some funding to try this approach on a wider level and the results, parlayed by nursing-home staff, was that the residents listening to the music were more social than ever.
“[The residents] would say things like, “You’ve gotta hear this song,’ or ‘This reminds me of when I met my husband,’ or, ‘Do you remember The Andrews Sisters?'” Cohen tells Rolling Stone of his early success. “We found that, in general, people were less agitated. They were more cooperative, more attentive, more engaged, in less pain and more articulate. There’s research that music can diminish the perception of pain.”
He cites a Brown University study from 2016 that produced two findings: people could reduce their dependency on antipsychotic drugs when listening to personalized playlists and that music reduced the likelihood of sufferers striking out in a violent way. Cohen is hopeful that the children of parents suffering from these diseases can learn about the difference music can make in people’s lives and practice it at home, making the parents feel more comfortable, safer and connected to their families so they don’t need to be in nursing homes. “Grandparents will not remember people’s names, and people with advanced dementia tend to get to a point where they can’t recognize their own family,” he says. “They may not be able to communicate with words, but they will recognize that music.”
This is a phenomenon Costello saw again when his own father, Ross MacManus, entered into Parkinson’s-related dementia about six years ago. “In the early stages of the illness we would still listen to music together, including selections that my grandfather, Pat, would have brought home from New York in the 1920s, particularly the song, ‘My Blue Heaven,’ as it happened to have a girl named Molly and child who would have been the same age as my infant father at that time,” he says. “Later in his illness, I insisted that an iPad playing his favorite music – and scrolling an album of family photographs – be visible and audible to him during his waking hours.
“At times when little else penetrated his torments and distress, it was music rather than spoken word that reached him,” he continues. “On a few occasions, he emerged through an apparent fog to state the identity of a singer or gather a tune in a voice that was still surprisingly melodious and true at a time when his speech was reduced to a hoarse whisper. In the end, his passing was accompanied by a recording of his favorite song by his favorite trumpet player, Clifford Brown, an incredible piece of chance and mercy that would stretch credulity if written in a fiction.”
Cohen appreciates Costello’s story, calling it both moving and heartwarming, and it speaks to the permanence of music in people’s memory. “When I started this, people said to me, ‘Dan, you don’t have to give people with Alzheimer’s more than five songs because they’ll hear five songs, they’ll forget that they heard it and they’ll hear it again and it’ll be all new,'” Cohen says. “But that’s really not how it works. When we find music we love, we’re not making a cognitive decision that ‘I like that song.’ No. You feel it. It’s inexplicable. It’s part of us. The music that we love is tied to our emotional system and for people even with severe cognitive decline, their emotional system is still pretty much intact. So they’re there. So for any of us, should we get dementia, the songs we love when we’re young and love now, we’re gonna love them later no matter how much our brain may fade in terms of its ability to recall short-term information.”
Cohen would like to see more music overall introduced in nursing homes, whether it’s recorded or performed. “Live music is better for the interactivity, for the spontaneity and being responsive to the audience, and recorded music is great for people in the middle of the night or on the weekend when no one is around,” he says. “Right now, every room has TV sets. That was never a problem. So why can’t every person have their own music?”
Costello says that after his personal experiences with his father and grandmother, he immediately wanted to support Music & Memory. Says the singer: “It was clear to me that the charity is offering that same possibility of solace and comfort [as in my family], and the little that I was asked to do [to support it] was a task readily undertaken.”