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The Magic of Music for People with Dementia!

Ninety years old woman reaction to modern music. Grandma listeniMusic can be magic for all of us in different ways, and its power doesn’t usually fade when we’re affected with dementia. 

Here are a few examples:

  • ”I’ve seen numerous people who could play complete songs on the piano or sing every word to an older song, even as they were well into the middle stages of Alzheimer’s and could not remember the names of family members.”
  • “My mom has dementia, and her mood gets so much better with music she knows and loves!”
  • ”Many of us enjoy and benefit from listening to music, and this often does not change after someone develops Alzheimer’s.”
  • “I was born during World War II. My mother sang the popular songs of the day while working around the house. Even though I’m now 72, I still can remember all the words to those songs.”
  • ”One research project studied people with Alzheimer’s and found that their memory for music was not affected by the disease.”
  • “People who lose their speech can sometimes recover it through music.”
  • “Scientists have identified neural pathways that react almost exclusively to the sound of music—any music.”

The powerful “magic” of music might be just the thing to unlock emotions and memories in your loved one with dementia. Because music is recognized and stored in a different part of the brain than speech or other memories, musical memories are sometimes spared the ravages of mental deterioration and can reawaken connections with events, emotions and even useful information associated with the music. Studies have shown that some people with dementia can even learn new information and behaviors, like which pills to take when, if the information is put to music. At the very least, most people with dementia find familiar music from the past to be a pleasant source of entertainment and comfort, reducing challenging behaviors and decreasing feelings of anxiety and depression.

“Music Therapy” could work magic with your loved one!

About.com has an article in the About Health section of their website that gives useful tips on “Music in Alzheimer’s Disease,” broken down into stages. The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America suggests other activities suited to each stage. This information comes from those two articles:

Music in Early Stage Alzheimer’s

Many people enjoy playing music or singing. Encourage them to continue to be involved in music. It may be an area in which they can feel success and accomplishment, and be cheered up by its beauty.

Make compilation recordings of their favorite songs, which are often songs or music that date back to their younger and middle years, or they may be songs relating to their faith. (Put them on an iPod or another device that’s easy to use. Other activities include:

  • Go out dancing or dance in the house.
  • Experiment with various types of concerts and venues, giving consideration to endurance and temperament.
  • Encourage an individual who played an instrument to try it again.
  • Use a musical history of favorite recordings to help in reminiscence and memory recall.

Music in Middle Stage Alzheimer’s

Some people in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s can continue to play the piano or another instrument, and benefit from the activity. When behaviors become challenging, music is often an effective distraction and be beneficial to mood and sleep patterns. Try these activities:

  • Use song sheets or a karaoke player so the individual can sing along with old-time favorites.
  • Play music or sing as the person is walking to improve balance or gait and to longer walks, because exercising is more enjoyable.
  • Use background music that enhances mood. You may have to experiment with the effect of different types of music on your loved one.
  • Choose relaxing music—a familiar, non-rhythmic song—to reduce sundowning, or other behavior problems at nighttime.

Music in Late Stage Alzheimer’s

In this state, music is often used as a way to connect with a loved one and evoke a response. He or she still may enjoy listening to the recordings of their favorite songs. Familiar music may be able to calm someone who’s restless or uncomfortable in the end stages of life. Some people with severe Alzheimer’s will mouth the words of a familiar song and visibly relax and rest during the music.

  • Do sing-alongs, with tunes sung by rote in that person’s generation.
  • Do drumming or other rhythm-based activities. As dementia progresses, individuals typically lose the ability to share thoughts and gestures of affection with their loved ones. However, they retain their ability to move with the beat until very late in the disease process.
  • Use facial expressions to communicate feelings when involved in these activities.

Whatever the mechanism, the therapeutic value of music is accepted by the medical establishment, and some forms of music therapy are even covered by health insurance. Music can be magical—especially for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. And it can result in compelling outcomes even in the very late stages of the disease.

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