Using Music to Engage Alzheimer's Patients


Using Music to Engage Alzheimer's Patients by Marie Marley, for the Huffington Post 


People caring for those with Alzheimer's have long known that music is special to those individuals. It won't stop or slow the progression of their disease, but it can have a significant impact for them.

Many people with Alzheimer's can sing songs, 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 prior.

After listening to music some are clearly more calm, 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 memories their caregivers had assumed were lost forever.

There are a few simple recommendations for using music therapeutically with people who have Alzheimer's:

Play Music for the Person

Live music can be introduced in several ways. Those in the early stages of Alzheimer's may be taken out to concerts or you could even have a musician come to the home!

Nursing homes 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. Further, whether at home or in a facility, caregivers can sing to patients.

Having the person listen to recorded music is somewhat less engaging than listening to live music because it doesn't provide the visual stimulation that live music does. However, it has the advantage of allowing the patient to listen to a piece repeatedly at any time. Some caregivers are intentionally and frequently playing music their loved ones cherished the most before they developed the disease. Even background music can bring comfort and pleasure to people with Alzheimer's.

Arrange for Musical Experiences in Which the Person Can Participate

Having your loved one participate in musical activities is more engaging and can be more effective than simply listening. This can be conducted in various ways. In facilities, the most common type of musical participation is sing-alongs. Typically led by "activities" staff, these sessions can often even catch the attention of 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 and connection to all.

People with Alzheimer's in any setting can be given drums, tambourines or other simple percussion instruments to play. 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. Some, especially those with early dementia, may be still be capable of performing. If they can play they will probably get quite a bit of enjoyment from it.

Use Music Appropriate for the Person

The cardinal rule when using music with someone with Alzheimer's is to always observe how they are reacting to the music and stop it immediately if it seems to be having a negative impact.

You can effectively use whatever type of music the person liked most before developing cognitive impairment. An alternative is to use "golden oldies." A third consideration is that people with dementia will generally react most favorably to music that was popular when they were in their teenage years or early 20s.

To avoid over-stimulating or making the person agitated, it is best to avoid music that is loud, dissonant or frenetic. Also, be careful to avoid sad music, such as sad love songs or ones that may connect to some specific sad experience in their past, such as music played at the funeral of a loved one or the "favorite song" they had with a deceased friend.

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, for those with advanced Alzheimer's, you may find it's one of the very few things at which they'll really respond.

Published on September 18, 2018.