Music and dementia

Music: Orange Juice for the Ear, Tonic for the Soul

“Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears — it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. But for many of my neurological patients, music is even more – it can provide access, when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity.” So noted Oliver Sacks, MD, Professor of Neurology at New York University School of Medicine.

Orange juice for the ear!

Orange juice for the ear!

Dr. Sacks passed away August 30, 2015. He was a prominent researcher who made important contributions to the study of Alzheimer’s and other dementia. He was also one of the  pioneers to connect the great therapeutic potential of music for persons with a variety of neurological conditions.

I recently read Dr. Sacks’ 2007 book, Musicophilia, Tales of Music and the Brain. This book substantiated what I knew implicitly from my own experiences with my mother – that even when dementia is in an advanced stage, their response to music is preserved. One of the tenets of Sacks’ theory is that we humans are a musical species, no less than a linguistic one. Our propensity to music shows itself in infancy and is manifest in every culture and civilization. Music can reproduce all the emotions of our innermost being.

Dr. Sacks writes: “So much of what is heard during one’s early years may be ‘engraved’ on the brain for the rest of one’s life. Our auditory systems, our nervous systems, are indeed exquisitely tuned for music.” Musical perception and sensibility, musical emotion and musical memory can survive long after other forms of memory have disappeared. Music engages the part of the brain that stores long-term memories.

Music played an important part in my life growing up. My parents were both musical. Both had beautiful voices and perfect pitch. Dad was an accomplished violinist who played on his hometown radio station as part of a trio with his two brothers, Ed, the pianist and organist, and Henry, who played the cello. Mom was a pianist and organist. After they met and married, Dad directed the local church choir while Mom played the organ. They were devoted to this music ministry for twenty-five years. You can imagine the wonderful sounds and harmonies that wafted through our home!

When my parents retired to Florida, they established a chorus of residents from their retirement community, Village Green in Vero Beach.The group, called the Choraliers, sang and performed for about fourteen years. Dad was the director and Mom was their pianist.  

The Village Green Choraliers, directed by my Dad, and Mom as the accompanist

The Village Green Choraliers, directed by my Dad, and Mom as the accompanist

Music continued to be important during the years when I cared for my mother. I recount in Chapter Nine of my memoir, Elegy for Mom, that when I would visit Mom on Saturdays, we would sit in her room and listen to music on a tape recorder while I gave her a manicure. “The music gave her a sense of peace and contentment. Mom would hum and sing along in her beautiful alto voice.” (Page 68) On Sundays, we would attend a Communion service for Catholic residents of the facility. Mom would sing the familiar hymns, despite her difficulty with everyday conversation. She remembered the words and music to the “Our Father,” which she must have sung thousands of times in her lifetime.

On the website, Alzheimer’, Alissa Sauer posted an article on “Five Reasons Why Music Boosts Brain Activity.” (July 21, 2014) She lists the following:

  1. Music evokes emotions that bring memories.
  2. Musical aptitude and appreciation are two of the last remaining abilities in dementia patients.
  3. Music can bring emotional and physical closeness.
  4. Singing is engaging.
  5. Music can shift mood, manage stress, and stimulate positive interaction.

To your loved ones who may be having difficulty communicating, who appear tense and confused, who might be feeling depressed, music can have the power beyond anything else to restore them to themselves and to others, at least for a while. Being able to sing “words” can be a reassurance to a person who otherwise doesn’t remember how to converse. The words are still “in” them, though it may take music to bring them out. Check out the website, Alzheimer’s, which gives a “how-to” sheet on using music at the various stages of dementia.

Give yourself a ten-minute break from caregiving and experience the power of music in this reflection created by my friend and mentor, Merle Stern. Play one of your favorite pieces of music, or music that invokes a special memory, as you enjoy this meditation.

Gently close your eyes and calm your mind by focusing on your breathing. As you breathe in, feel your body relax. As you breathe out, feel the tensions leaving your body.

Let your mind drift to a meadow. You are lying on a grassy knoll. Feel your body in contact with the ground. Picture details about the place: its size and terrain; is there grass? was it recently mowed? are there wild flowers? what kind?

Look at the clouds, if there are any. Listen to the wind as it blows through the shrubs and branches of the trees. Feel the wind blowing gently on your face, and the warmth of the sun’s rays.

You can hear music playing way out in the distance. It is familiar to you, and gradually it is getting closer and closer. As it comes nearer, you feel it resounding through your body, throbbing in your veins. It feels like being on a beach and lying at the edge of the water. The music, like the water, is gently washing over you. After a while, you feel that it is not only externally, but internally, gently washing over and within you. There are also colors emerging with the music. The sunlight is changing, and your body feels elevated from the ground and at one with the music.

Stay in this state for a while. Let the music vibrate within and around you as you explore the sound. Gradually, the music begins to fade away and you are back in the meadow.

Become aware of your breathing and the room where you are sitting, and all that is in it. In this quiet state, reflect on how this experience has been a reflection of your life. What lesson can you take from it?  

As Oliver Sacks puts it so well, “Music is part of being human.” Just like we need sunlight and vitamin C in order to be healthy, take your daily “orange juice for the ear” and share it every day with your loved one!  I wish you peace, joy, patience, and memorable music in your caregiving journey!

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Listen to a four-minute video of Dr. Oliver Sacks discuss the benefits of music for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients: .

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Watch the effect music has on this elderly gentleman when he hears a familiar song. He is brought back to life, so to speak, by music:

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Here is an official trailer to a documentary movie, “Alive Inside.” It explores music’s capacity to awaken our souls: It is available in movie theaters and as a DVD for purchase on the website:

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The non-profit organization, Music & Memory, has instructions “How to Create a Personalized Playlist for Your Loved One at Home.” Check out their website here:

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April is National Poetry Month. I’d like to share a poem written by a dear friend of mine, Priscilla Dunning. It resonates with the theme of memory and music.


By 12:35 p.m.

she had finished her lunch.

By 12:45 p.m.

she had wheeled herself into the sunroom.

She was on nursing home time, and as it

happened every day, her eyes went to

the piano in the corner of the room.

Since her stroke, she couldn’t speak.

Neither could the piano.

Yet, it spoke to her.


It was just an old upright with scratches and dents,

(no Baby Grand) –

elegant in its way, like an

aristocrat whose fortunes had declined.

It resided in a corner, out of the way,

tuned on an “as needed” basis.


By 1:00 p.m.

she began her silent conversation,

telling the piano how alike they were –

how they both operated on wheels;

how with her fingers and the piano’s keys,

they could play wonderful concerts together;

and how they may both be old, but their strings

were filled with memories of fun and laughter.


By 1:15 p.m.

Mrs. Winstanley sat in a corner, out of the way, and

couldn’t remember if she had ever really played.

Yet, like the piano, the music was still inside of her

even though her strings needed tuning,

and her wheels needed oiling,

and her memory needed practice.


By 1:30 p.m.

The piano remained silent

and sleep overcame her.

The conversation was finished.