Music can elevate mood, promote relaxation, reduce anxiety, depression, and agitation. Music therapy, including singing, dancing, playing an instrument, or even clapping or tapping rhythmically, has been used in the field of dementia care for many years.
October 2 marked our beloved father’s fourteenth death anniversary. When I reminisce about him, I think Dad would want us to remember him for his devoted love of family, his gentle love of people, and his love of music. Dad did not have dementia, but he was a devoted caregiver for our Mom who was diagnosed in her early 80’s with Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.
Music was the soundtrack of Dad’s life. He was a musician and a singer. As a young man in his twenties, he played violin and entertained at a local radio program as a member of a trio with his two brothers, Ed, the pianist, and Henry, the cellist.
It was music that brought our parents-to-be together. Dad met our mother at the Polish Hall in Lansing, MI while performing there. I can imagine them getting to know each other, and enjoying dancing to polkas and the other popular dances of their day. They married just before Dad was sent overseas to the front to head up a trucking division supplying the Army troops during World War II. While Dad was still stateside at Ft. Leonard Wood, he was a member of an all-soldier cast that produced a musical comedy, “Ready on the Firing Line!” This production was a fundraiser for the Army’s emergency relief fund.
When the war ended, Dad returned to the USA and settled in to raise a family. Music filled our home. My siblings and I were “encouraged” to take up a musical instrument as youngsters. Four of us chose to learn to play the piano, while my youngest brother played the drums. For twenty-five years, Dad and Mom were the choir director and organist at our local parish.
When they retired to Florida, they organized a choral group, the Choraliers, at their local Village Green retirement community. Dad directed the chorus while Mom accompanied on the piano. For about fourteen years, the Choraliers entertained residents, as well as patients in the local hospital and nursing homes.
We are rhythmic beings by nature and are “wired” to respond to music. Music engages the part of the brain called the hippocampus, the area that stores long-term memories, and the part of the brain that isn’t affected in the early or middle stages of Alzheimer’s. Research is currently being conducted on how music can improve the mood in those affected with dementia, even in the late stages of the disease.
You don’t have to be a music therapist or have an extensive background in musicology to make music an essential element in the quality of life for your loved one. Here are a few tips to spark joy through music:
- Pick styles of music your loved one enjoys.
Research indicates that music that was familiar and popular at the time musical memories develop (between the ages of eight and twenty) resonates with persons with dementia and produces favorable outcomes. Do they have favorite musicians or singers, favorite songs, or favorite styles of music (classical, operatic, country western, rock and roll, hymns, etc.)?
- Think about how the tempo, speed, and rhythm of the music can affect your loved one.
If you want them to become more relaxed, select music that is calming with a slow beat. If you want them to feel upbeat, select a lively song.
- Observe how your loved one responds to the song or the particular kind of music.
Every person resonates with different music and song preferences. A song might trigger painful memories or emotions. If they appear agitated, it may be that they don’t want to listen to music at that moment but can’t let you know this. Soft classical music, lullabies, or non-rhythmic instrumental background music can reduce agitation and anxiety during periods of sundowning.
- Pay attention to volume.
Music must be loud enough for your loved one to hear it, but not so loud that it’s uncomfortable. Persons with hearing loss or using hearing aids often have trouble hearing music in the higher ranges. Pick music that is in a lower range and has a strong beat.
- Make connections with music.
Music can bring you and your loved one closer together. Use music as a tool to get to know them better. Music can trigger feelings and memories that aren’t expressed at other times. Use photographs and pictures along with the music to help bring back memories of good times and persons in their lives that will allow them to share their pleasant experiences.
- Sing along or dance with your loved one.
You can usually search for lyrics on Google or YouTube music. A 2014 study in the Journal of Music Therapy specifically looked at the impact of singing familiar songs. It found that they could elicit memories, spontaneous conversation, and generally positive feelings of belonging and accomplishment.
I’m so grateful that my musical parents provided a foundation and exposed me to a variety of musical experiences that have enriched my life. I can just imagine Dad in heaven directing a choir of angels in a joyous rendition of George Frideric Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus!”
I wish you peace, patience, compassion, and joy in your caregiving today and every day!
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My blog article of April 9, 2016, also focused on the benefits of music. To read “Orange for the Ear, Tonic for the Soul,” click here: http://caregiverfamilies.com/category/music-and-alzheimers/.
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Ted McDermott, 80 years old, has dementia and loves to sing. His son taped him singing carpool karaoke, and put those tapes on YouTube. A producer from Decca Records heard Ted singing and offered him a record contract. Check out the story here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qT22tFsPPUA.
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Wikipedia maintains a list of top American pop songs from 1940 to 2016: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Billboard_number-one_singles.
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Mary Sue Wilkinson, a music therapist, began a website, www.singingheartotheart.com, that shares how music can enliven lives. You can download her free e-resource, “Finding Memories through Music – A Family Interview,” by going to: https://www.singinghearttoheart.com/home.
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I came across an a cappella vocal interpretation of Edward Elgar’s, “Nimrod: Lux Aeterna,” sung by the British group VOCES8. It is a moving rendition that I think my father would have loved. May he rest in eternal light and peace. You can listen here: http://www.cmuse.org/elgars-nimrod-vocal-performance-will-make-you-so-emotional/.