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Finding Cherished Memories Through Nostalgic Music

By Mary Sue Wilkinson March 20, 2022 Caregiving

My mom died when I was 35 years old. She was only 58. She’s been gone a long time now, and sadly, memories do have a way of fading. Here’s one memory I do have. And it comes to me whenever I hear a certain song.

Let me explain.

When I was 12 years old, my mother wouldn’t let me to go to the junior high dances. She insisted that I wait until I was 13. Imagine! Trust me, the months dragged on that year in seventh grade until my birthday in March. And then, be still my heart, I finally found myself at my first dance.

A School Dance

I remember the dimmed church basement and the crepe paper draped and drooping between the dark wooden beams of the low ceiling. I remember I was wearing a moss-colored, plaid kilt skirt and a matching soft, green sweater that I had gotten for Christmas.

And then it happened.

The boy I had been pining for, Skip Winne, asked me to dance. The song? Cherish by the Association. To this day, whenever I hear that song I can see my handsome prince with his soft blonde hair and brown eyes. (Okay – I’m exaggerating – but he was cute!)

I can almost feel his tentative arms around me as we “danced” in that awkward way that only 13-year-olds can do, especially when the chaperones are lurking nearby.

I close my eyes and I am back in that church basement. I get a warm, fuzzy feeling as dreamy memories of my first boyfriend and my teenage years come flooding back.

Experience the Power of Nostalgic Music

Remembering Skip is fun.

But the best part of this story is how that song helps me remember my mom.

I remember staying up late that night, and so many other nights, talking about boys and eating potato chips. My mom was my best friend. That one song cracks open the door to so many cherished memories.

Okay, you get the picture, right?

So I bet you have a song and a story too. Maybe you’ve heard it recently on the golden oldies station? If you think about it, music has been accompanying you from your very first days when your mother sang you a lullaby.

Throughout the decades, music has changed and of course you have changed, too. But the songs of your youth are stored away in your brain. And no matter what happens, hearing those songs allows people to access memories that may at other times seem too far away to enjoy.

Music was likely part of your world as you learned to talk and walk. The simple songs of your childhood accompanied you when you played in the park, jumped rope or called out “Olly Olly Oxen Free.”

Remember how you learned to memorize the letters of the alphabet in a song? A, B, C, D, E, F, G… next time won’t you sing with me.

As you got a bit older, music on the radio may have been your companion as you dreamed about the boy or girl you wanted to date. The special song played for your first dance, like mine with Skip, may bring back a fond and surprisingly vivid memory.

Was there a road trip or school bus trip that found you singing at the top of your lungs? (99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall comes to my mind.) Did your family have a favorite song that you sang on long trips, crammed into the family station wagon, standing hip to hip around the piano or trying to avoid the smoke, perched around a campfire?

Wedding bells ring and music “walks you down the aisle.” Next thing you know you’re dancing in a conga line at the reception. Before you know it, your own babies are born and you find yourself singing the same lullabies your mother sang and teaching your little ones Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

Using Nostalgic Music to Engage Elders

In my work with Singing Heart to Heart, I use music to engage, connect, awaken memories and bring joy to elders, many of whom are living with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. The nostalgic music reaches them in a profoundly simple way, just as it does all of us.

Here’s an excerpt from my book “Songs You Know By Heart: A Simple Guide for Using Music in Dementia Care” where you meet Bob and his response to the music of his youth:

“With a gentle smile, Bob shared with me that he had memory loss. He was trying to recall the name of one of his favorite songs. Not knowing the song title didn’t dampen his enthusiasm. As our music session began, he pushed up to his feet so that he could dance – often with his imaginary partner. He would hold “her” tenderly as he closed his eyes, wrapped his arms around himself, and caressed his own cheek. He swayed to the music and let the song take him to a place he remembered.

Bob likes rock and roll, Elvis, and “Blue Suede Shoes.” He could be any man on any dance floor. He laughs as he dances. When his wife visits I sing, “I’ll be loving you, always…” and they dance.

Would Bob have responded this way to just any song? Would I remember that church basement and Skip and my mom if you played for me one of your favorite songs? Of course not.”

Finding the Right Nostalgic Music

To find your way to memories you need the right music.

We all have personal preferences and personal experiences. And they matter! We grow up during different decades, in different places, in different families, in different cultures. We have our own musical history, linked to our personal history.

Don’t you wish your grandmother had written down her life story? What about that story grandpa always told about his younger days? Guess what?

Nostalgic music is a perfect tool to help you capture those family memories and stories. Your brain is literally hard wired to connect music with memory!

Finding Memories Through Music: A Family Interview is a keepsake guide I have written for you, to help you capture some of the wonderful memories that music “shakes loose.” You can use this interview to jog your own memory about the songs that have been the soundtrack for your life. Or, use it to learn more about your parents or the elders in your life.

What’s more, it’s free and you can get it on my website. Why am I giving this away? Because I am so thankful for the beauty of music in my own life and because I know how powerful music is as a tool to help us connect.

Let music be your guide to making and preserving family memories. Let it help you establish greater connection with family members both young and old.

What’s your favorite nostalgic music? What song tells your story? Have you used music as a way to encourage elders to tell their stories? What are some of their favorites? Please share in the comments.

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The Author

Mary Sue Wilkinson is the founder of Singing Heart to HeartTM. She is a musician, a speaker and the author of “Songs You Know By Heart: A Simple Guide for Using Music in Dementia Care.” She is passionate about the power of music. Learn more at

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