When people with memory loss struggle to find words, they often can remember songs. Scientists have found that music, and the emotion it evokes, maintain a strong hold on people’s memories. A program that is gaining traction in senior living communities builds on this enduring ability to sing to improve mood and engagement for residents with memory impairment.
It’s called SingFit. The program gives users access to a library of hundreds of songs curated by music therapists. The songs include spoken lyrics tracked to give singers the words right before they need them—a kind of an audio karaoke. Each quarter, participants get 12 new playlists.
“Essentially, what we do is we turn music into medicine,” says Rachel Francine, chief executive officer of SingFit. Singing has been proven to release neurochemicals such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin, which lower stress and create feelings of happiness and connectedness.
Francine’s father, a former opera singer, came up with the idea for lyric-prompting technology in the 1960s, but never pursued it because of technical constraints. It stuck with Francine, a technologist, and her brother, Andy Tubman, a music therapist. They launched Musical Health Technology in 2012.
Today SingFit Prime, the company’s main program, is in use at about 450 senior living communities, skilled nursing facilities and hospitals. In November 2018, Sunrise Senior Living, one of the country’s largest assisted living and memory care providers, announced that it was implementing SingFit in 260 communities.
Research has found that three SingFit sessions per week increased mood by an average of 43 percent among memory care residents, and one adult day care facility noted a 40 percent reduction in the need for anti-anxiety medication in SingFit participants.
The calming effect of the singing often leads to improved participation in other elements of SingFit Prime, which include trivia and reminiscence questions and movement activities, Francine said.
To administer the programs, caregivers and activity directors with no previous music therapy experience take two hours of training online and one hour with a certified music therapist.
Of the 1,400-plus caregivers who have become SingFit Prime facilitators, 92 percent reported that it made their job more fulfilling, according to company research.
It can be stressful for loved ones to interact with somebody with dementia because their realities are often different, making it tough to discuss current events or even play a game, Francine says. Singing together provides a shared experience.
AARP awarded SingFit the Dementia Care Technology Innovation Award in 2016, and this year it won an award from the Dementia Society of America.
At the end of the year, Francine plans to start offering “SingFit Studio” to facilitate one-on-one, rather than group, sessions.
“People, as they age, are really no different than people when they’re young,” Francine says. “They still want to be engaged in life and doing things that interest them. There’s huge opportunity here to fill that need.”
Stephanie Kanowitz is a Fairfax, Va.-based freelance writer, fitness instructor, mother and caregiver to her mother, who was diagnosed with dementia in 2012. Stephanie earned journalism degrees from the University of Florida (bachelor’s) and American University (master’s), and her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Washington Post Express, Red Tricycle, the Washington Diplomat and the Kveller blog.