All of us associate music with some important event or a particular time in our lives. Often, the connection is so powerful that hearing a song or tune from long ago evokes a forgotten memory or emotion. Unlike many other memories and associations, patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease seem to remember many of those associated with music. This is probably true because not much cognitive “thinking” activity is required to respond to musical stimulation.
A large amount of technical and medical information is available on this subject, but this article concentrates on the practical aspects of using music to communicate and interact with people suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
How can the caretaker or loved one use the ability of music to communicate with these patients?
Listening to music brings out emotions and can change the mood of all persons, including Alzheimer’s patients. This is true even in advanced stages of the disease, when other forms of communication are growing less effective. Music can calm and soothe an Alzheimer’s patient who is agitated or bring a smile to the face of one who is otherwise unresponsive. A few of the ways music may be of benefit are discussed below.
In the early stages of Alzheimer’s, try to use music to keep the patient or loved one active, interactive and engaged. Many times, these people are physically able to perform quite normally. If so, attending a suitable concert or even a dance might provide a great boost to the outlook of a person who is becoming less interactive.
If they have had any experience playing an instrument, this is a good time to take it up again. It may be surprising how well they recall this skill, when other abilities are fading. If they have never played, it is possible that they can learn even at a late age. Several studies have shown that learning to play an instrument like the guitar can help keep the brain plastic well into a person’s 80’s or 90’s. Attempting this may serve to keep an early Alzheimer’s patient engaged and learning a new skill. However, if this is too frustrating, do not push it.
If they have no past experience with musical instruments and learning is not an option, sing-alongs using words from song sheets may be effective. A karaoke machine or an MP3 player may be a good investment. The MP3 player can be used to build individualized playlists for a particular person. There is an organization called Music & Memory that collects donated MP3 players for this purpose. If you do not want to invest too much money, look for a used one on online.
When building a playlist, consider the person’s current age and then calculate the years in which they would have been a youngster, a teenager or young adult. Music from this period of life often evokes the strongest memories and brings the most positive response. Do an internet search for the biggest music hits from those years. Websites like Billboard Magazine can help you find a list of songs from practically any year or period. Most of this music can now be downloaded for free or at small cost. Using these resources, you can compile a music library of favorite recordings, which can be used to help in reminiscence and memory recall.
Watch your loved one’s reaction carefully when you first play a song or group of songs. It is tough to predict an individual’s response. They may have hated “Good Golly Miss Molly” when it was new and still hate it, so if a song evokes a negative reaction (facial grimaces, frowns, etc.), eliminate it.
Upbeat or soothing music that is new to the individual may also be helpful because it carries no memories or emotions. This may be especially useful when trying to deal with stress or help in relaxation training. Again, be aware that any type of music can produce a response that is not what you expected or hoped for, so be ready to “cut” it if that happens.
There is little doubt that music therapy and exposure helps both patients and the caretaker staff to deal with Alzheimer’s. One administrator said this about the use of music and its effect on patients-
“Despite the enormous sums of money spent on mood- and behavior-altering medications that are often not particularly effective, nothing compares to these iPods when it comes to improving quality of life.” —Tony Lewis, President Cobble Hill Health Center, Brooklyn, New York
As Alzheimer’s progresses, music may become even more important. Background music may help the person to relax even when reassuring words have no effect. Playing upbeat music while walking may help the person to keep their balance and maintain the best pace that they can. Exercising to music is a good motivation at any stage of the disease.
In the later stages of Alzheimer’s or other dementias, music may be one of the few ways in which the loved one or caretaker can get any response at all from the patient. It is not unusual to see a broad smile from a person who hears a childhood tune, even if they are no longer able to communicate verbally. The music is helping to keep them connected to their past and to be reassured about their current surroundings.
The study of music and Alzheimer’s therapy is expanding. Numerous universities now offer academic degrees in the field of music therapy. Most people who love or care for a victim of Alzheimer’s do not have time to take a degree in therapy, but there is help. Look for specific details from non-profit organizations like the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America and check out our resources at FindingAssistedLiving.com.
Music therapy is one avenue for helping dementia and Alzheimer’s patients deal with the condition. There are many others, so many that no one person can be informed about all of them. As a spouse, family member or other loved one, you may find yourself overwhelmed by the responsibility of caring for a person suffering with Alzheimer’s or other form of dementia. Finding Assisted Living and FindingAssistedLiving.com are dependable sources of unbiased and knowledgeable information and referrals for you or the person who depends on you. Please call on FAL to provide expert and trustworthy advice and assistance in finding home care options, assisted living facilities or a range of other options. Visit FindingAssistedLiving.com now to get the help you need.
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