Reconnect to someone with dementia through the power of music

piano players
Posted 22 April 2019 by Fallon Health

By Jan Maier, M.P.H., RN

My mother, a minister’s daughter, loved the music of her church. She played the piano and sang for most of her life, even after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at age 74.

Little by little, her ability to play complex music on the piano eroded. She kept trying until it became too frustrating for her, but even in the last few months of her life, she could still truly enjoy singing and listening to music, by herself or with others.

My experience as a daughter and caregiver for both parents—along with my professional health care and research experience—has led me to believe strongly in the power of music to help people with dementia reconnect with their caregivers.

I want to share this knowledge—which is grounded in music/brain and health research—with you, especially if you’re caring for or visiting someone with dementia. With some basic tools and inspiration, you can incorporate music into your loved one’s daily life and use it as a source of joy and meaningful connection.

Influence of rhythm
Rhythm is deeply imprinted on all of us, from the beginnings of our lives. We hear our first rhythm before birth: our mothers’ pulse. People often find comfort in rhythmic sounds. And in its many forms, music can bring us joy throughout our lives. 

Now it’s becoming clear that music can have a very positive effect on many people who live with dementia. Music may “awaken” them, even during the later stages of dementia. A person with dementia may be able to give only one word answers most of the time. But after listening to or making music, they may be more expressive and better able to interact with others. Mood and cognition may improve. Music gets their attention and may even hold it for an hour or more.

Recent research has located the parts of the brain in which long-term music memories are stored. These places are among the very last to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease. Many people, even into the later stages of dementia, can remember lyrics, melodies and how to play an instrument.

We don’t yet understand how all of this happens, although more researchers are beginning to study the effects of music. This video clip from the documentary “Alive Inside” shows a stirring example of a man named Henry, who becomes very animated and expressive after listening to music he loved throughout his life.

Music as a calming tool
As a caregiver, you can take advantage of the power of music to help your loved one generate more enthusiasm for life or a sense of calm. You may find a music therapist in your area to provide support for specific problems. Some also lead group singing.

There are also many things you can do yourself to explore how music may help your loved one. For example, simply play music he or she enjoys and responds to positively.

Many people connect with music that was popular when they were in their 20s or with religious or patriotic music. Others light up when they hear music they associate with a family tradition or a romance from their past. Remember that it’s about their taste in music, rather than yours or another person’s. It doesn’t even have to be something they’ve heard before to have a positive effect.

You’ll know right away if your loved one doesn’t like the music, and you can easily change it or turn it off. Remember that tears may be therapeutic while remembering tender moments. Use your judgment here.

A good time for better communication
You may find that your loved one has more lucidity and can better understand and respond to you after listening to or playing music. Even simple rhythms may activate and seem to organize certain parts of the brain that are still working.

Music’s effects don’t last forever, but you may find that it can “light up” your loved one for a little while. That can make it feel like he or she is back for a short time. If you want to have a meaningful conversation—or just want to make a brief connection—with your loved one, put on the music for a while first. It may only give you a few minutes of real connection, but sometimes, that can be everything.

Let go of self-consciousness
The more actively you engage your loved one in the music the more likely the effect will be enhanced. He or she may sing or move with the music naturally—join in! Being with other people who are also engaging in the music can be powerful—singing, clapping, snapping, tapping the table, adding body movements. Being at eye-level with your loved one and making direct eye contact may strengthen your connection. Touching a hand or shoulder may also help.

Many of us believe that we’re not musical and not good singers. But music as therapy has nothing to do with the quality of your voice or your ability to sing on key. This is about connecting, about human love.

Two weeks before my mother died, my father brought her to a church hymn-sing. She couldn’t communicate well by then, but he knew she would love the old familiar hymns.

To the surprise of all around her, she sang all the verses by heart with great enthusiasm. When the minister asked how she was doing afterward, she answered clearly, “I am doing just fine.” It was a day Dad always remembered, when they shared great joy together for a little while because of the music they both loved.

Jan Maier, M.P.H., RN, former Senior Research Analyst at the Research Triangle Institute, is a choral conductor, workshop leader, nurse and musician/performer. Grounding her presentations in current music/brain/dementia research, she specializes in giving workshops for caregivers and health care providers on how to incorporate music into daily life and bring back more joy.

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