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Leann Reynolds

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How Music Can Help Alzheimer's

Posted: 08/18/11 09:37 AM ET

Celia shares a picture of herself as a 7-year-old girl. Her young mother is leading her in a dance. Then she pulls out a second photograph, taken one week before her mother passed away from Alzheimer's at the age of 78. In this image, they are dancing again. This time, Celia is leading.

"As soon as I felt her lose herself to Alzheimer's, I would bring in my iTunes and play Spanish music for her," said Mrs. Pomerantz. "Then I could convince her to do anything -- we would dance over to the shower or out to get a meal."

Mrs. Pomerantz intuitively found what experts say is useful tool in helping people with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.

"Music speaks to a person's feelings, so it is a sensory and not intellectual experience," said Martha Tierney of the Alzheimer's Association. "That is partly why it works -- there is no pressure to understand it and they can just experience it."

Tapping into her mother's lifelong love of salsa music by world-renowned musicians such as Tito Puente, Celia Cruz and Pancho Sanchez, from her native Puerto Rico, Mrs. Pomerantz found a way to interact with her mother even after her mother lost her ability to talk.

"When my mother would hear music, she would give life to the music," she said, adding that her mother became known as the "dancing queen" at her final nursing home. "It brought her back to happy moments of maybe dancing with her own mother, or even her grandmother. It gave her a confidence, peace and serenity." Mrs. Pomerantz chronicled her mother's Alzheimer's in a Kindle book, "Alzheimer's: A Mother Daughter Journey."

While not everyone can rely on a history of family dancing and cultural music, it is important to find out what type of music your loved likes and keep playing it for them.

"I had a client who attacked his wife while they were driving," said Nataly Rubenstein of Alzheimer's Care Consultants in Miami Beach, Florida, explaining that the patient's dementia led him to feel agitated in a car. "It turns out his favorite music was the Bee Gees, and now he sits in the car holding the CD case while listening that music."

After her own mother was diagnosed with Tick's Disease (a form of dementia), Ms. Rubenstein was her primary caregiver for 16 years. She recalled that one day when her mother was in a particularly "nasty" mood, the sound of Tom Jones' "What's Up Pussycat?" on the radio calmed her down.

Despite being an expert in dementia care, Ms. Rubenstein stumbled into this soothing tool to help her mother's combative and belligerent nature, which she said is very pronounced with Tick's disease. However, she cautions caregivers to be extremely sensitive to finding music that their loved one will feel a connection to and not just randomly turn on the radio.

"If it wasn't familiar music to them, then it could aggravate them," she said. (She added half-jokingly: "If I ever get dementia, please dear God, I hope my caregivers don't play rap!")

Alzheimer's robs people of their short-term memory, explained Ms. Tierney, but their long-term memory can remain largely intact. "They maintain vivid memories of the past," she said. "A woman may look at her elderly husband and not recognize him as her husband because he does not look 35 years old anymore. So if you were to play music from that time period it would speak to her current reality."

In addition to finding the right music to soothe a loved one with Alzheimer's, a caregiver needs to also be aware of minimizing other sensory stimulation. "A radio can be too distracting with ads," Ms. Tierney said. "And headphones may work for some, but not others. There should not be a TV on in the same room, or other distracting noise."

That said, many people have found that live music can be particularly welcome for many Alzheimer's patients. This can be in the form of someone singing old camp songs, Christmas carols, church hymns, small symphonies and more.

Find out more about how therapeutic music can be for loved ones with Alzheimer's and other illnesses at the American Music Therapy Association's website, www.musictherapy.org.

"A person with Alzheimer's feels like everything is unfamiliar all of the time," Ms. Tierney said. "Allowing them to spend time with music that they recognize and retain memories of gives them the sense of familiarity in a world that is otherwise extremely confusing."


To learn more about treatment options visit Homewatch CareGivers'
Pathways to Memory page. Pathways to Memory is a program offered exclusively by Homewatch CareGivers and is comprised of two distinct service options: Specialized Dementia Care and Focused Memory Training.