My dad couldn't always remember my name, but he could sing every word of "The Blue Skirt Waltz." When he danced with his youngest granddaughter to Frankie Yankovic, the effects of his dementia disappeared into a polka beat.
Musical memories are stored in various areas of the brain, a complex code of language, movement, processing and emotion. That's why many people with Alzheimer's are able to sing, play an instrument, dance or hum along after other cognitive abilities have failed. Music can be a handy way to regulate mood or help pace the day (say, peppy Buck Owens for getting dressed, smooth Glenn Miller for winding down). It makes us all happy. And the occasional moments of wholeness and clarity that music brings someone with dementia? Downright magical.
Which kind of music works best is very individualized. Try different kinds. Some ideas to get you started:
1. Heyday hits. If you aren't sure what kind of music the person with Alzheimer's likes best, try Googling the words "music era" and the decade during which he or she was between the ages of 20 to 35 (1930s, 1940s, 1950s, etc.). Our 20s are typically a deeply emotional phase of life when we fall in love, attend dances and parties, listen to music with friends and enjoy new experiences.
2. Hymns. Ask to borrow a hymnal from a place of worship to help you play or sing familiar standards to someone for whom religious music has always been important.
3. Funny songs. Try to get a laugh with corny old tunes like Tiny Tim's "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" or "Purple People Eater" -- or my dad's favorites, "Mares Eat Oats," "Hello Mudda, Hello Fadda" (by Allan Sherman) and the "Too Fat Polka."
4. Musicals. Play the soundtrack of a classic or rent the movie version. A friend was once astonished that her by-then monosyllabic grandmother with dementia piped up with all of the words to "My Favorite Things," singing right along with Julie Andrews.
5. TV-show theme songs. Visit sites like televisiontunes.com and have a blast.
6. Musical instruments. My mother-in-law enjoyed plucking her grandchildren's zither and xylophone. Try a tambourine, maracas or even a piano, if the person once played.
7. Nursery rhymes. When I was a new mom, I didn't know any proper lullabies. So after I sang my colicky baby all the carols and Beatles songs I could think of, I went through Mother Goose. Rhymes like "Jack and Jill" and "Hey Diddle Diddle" are lodged very deep in the memory and might be enjoyable to a mother or teacher.
8. Christmas carols. Doesn't matter what time of year. Most people have positive memories associated with Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Elvis, and Burl Ives.
9. The genre you think of as the soundtrack to that person's life. For my dad, that would be polka music, which we listened to after church on Sundays and was featured at every family party and wedding. (Herb Albert and the aforementioned Buck Owens ranked pretty high for him, too.) Maybe in your house it was opera, country music, jazz, the Boston Pops, or show tunes. Look for "best of" albums. Or tune into a cable TV or satellite radio station that specializes in that genre. Try to avoid stations with commercial breaks, which disrupt the flow, and the mood, for listeners with Alzheimer's.