Using Music to Bring Comfort and Joy to People Living With Alzheimer's

01/16/2018 08:14 am ET
Ed and the violinist
Marie Marley
Ed and the violinist

Music has the power to reach people with Alzheimer’s disease on a deep level. Many can sing songs, including most or even all of the lyrics, long after their Alzheimer’s has progressed beyond the point of recognizing loved ones, dressing themselves, or even remembering what happened five minutes earlier.

Most importantly, however, music can have positive effects on the health and social functioning of people who have cognitive decline. After listening to music some are clearly calmer, in a better mood and more outgoing than before, which improves the quality of life for both the patient and the caregiver. Finally, music has been found to help those with dementia retrieve some memories their caregivers had assumed were lost forever.

Here are two simple recommendations for using music with people who have Alzheimer’s:

1. Play music for the person, using selections from their favorite type of music

2. Arrange for musical experiences in which the person can participate

Let’s look at each in more detail.

1. Play music for the person

Live music: Live music, often considered the most therapeutic musical activity for those with dementia, can be provided in several ways. Patients in the early stages of dementia may be taken out to concerts of the type of music they like. You could also have a musician or very small group of performers come to your home to perform. If you’re bringing in an artist to play for someone who is a former musician it can be quite effective to hire a person who plays the same instrument he or she used to play.

Nursing homes, of course, typically have an activity staff member who regularly performs for their residents. They can also arrange to have soloists or small ensembles come to the facility perform concerts.

Further, whether at home or in a facility, caregivers can sing to groups of patients. They can also sing to individuals, who usually relish the individual attention.

Recorded music: Having the person listen to recorded music is somewhat less engaging than listening to live music because, unlike live music, it doesn’t provide any visual stimulation. It does have the advantage, however, of being a modality that allows the patient to listen to the music over and over and at any time of the day rather than just when performers are present.

Persons with cognitive decline can listen to recorded music either through earphones or speakers. The latter provide an opportunity for the person and his or her caregiver to share the listening experience. Some caregivers these days are loading up iPods with the type of music their loved ones cherished the most before they developed the disease.

Background music: Even background music can bring comfort, calm and pleasure to people with Alzheimer’s. It should be played very softly, though, so as to not overstimulate the patient who may be carrying out some other task.

2. Arrange for musical experiences in which the person can participate

Getting your loved one to actually join in musical activities is more engaging than having them just listen. This, too, can be conducted in various ways.

Sing-alongs: In facilities the most common type of musical participation is in sing-alongs. Typically led by activities staff, these sessions often catch the attention of even the residents in the most advanced stages of the disease. It’s surprising the number of lyrics they can remember given their state of cognitive decline. For those living at home sing-alongs with family and friends can be arranged, bringing enjoyment to all.

Individual Patient Performances: People with Alzheimer’s in any setting can be given drums, tambourines or other simple percussion instruments to “play” in addition to, or instead of, singing. These require no musical talent or experience and can bring smiles to faces that were previously blank.

Another approach is to have loved ones who played instruments before they developed dementia try to play them again. Many will be unable and the experiment should be tactfully ended, but some, especially those with early dementia, may be capable of performing even if not at the same level of competence as before. If they can play they will probably get quite a bit of enjoyment from it.

Following these simple guidelines may give you and your family new ways to connect, interact and bring comfort and joy to your loved one. In fact, with people with advanced Alzheimer’s you may find it’s one of the very few things to which they’ll respond at all.

I personally used to listen to music on a regular basis with my 92-year-old Romanian soul mate and he always enjoyed it. His face would light up and he would move in time with the music. Sometimes he would hum along.

Two instances in particular stand out. One was when I pretended to be conducting the music, emulating the type of “wild” conductor he had always enjoyed so much before he became demented. The other was when I had a classical violinist show up in a tux to play a special concert just for him in his room in the nursing home. Both events brought him great joy and consequently brought joy to me as well.

Marie Marley is the award-winning author of ‘Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer’s and Joy’ and co-author (with neurologist, Daniel C. Potts, MD, FAAN) of ‘Finding Joy in Alzheimer’s: New Hope for Caregivers.’ Her website, ComeBackEarlyToday.com, contains a wealth of information for Alzheimer’s caregivers. A slightly different version of this post was published on the Alzheimer’s Reading Room.

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