Alzheimer’s patients remember through music. Even people with advanced dementia are often stimulated by music.
The Power of Music on Alzheimer’s Patients
by Joanna R. Leefer (as seen in the Courier Life newspaper groups)
During the mid-stages of my mother’s Alzheimer’s disease, I visited her daily at the Brooklyn assisted living facility where she lived. She resided on a special floor reserved for people with dementia. The activities offered on this unit were designed especially for people with various levels of cognitive and physical disabilities.
Wednesday was a special day. Every Wednesday at 2:00 p.m. a local performer would lead the group in a sing-a-long hour. At the appointed time, every resident who could sit was guided into the activity room and directed to a chair. Residents who were unable to walk were wheeled in on gurneys or wheelchairs. Most of these residents would set in stony eyed silence until everyone was settled.
When the performer began playing an old song and invited the residents to sing along….they did! As soon as the music started every person in the room sat up straighter and began to sing. They didn’t just mumble a few words, or hum, they sang every word of every single old song. Their faces became animated. They clapped their hands, tapped their toes and swayed to the music. They came alive!
One tall stately man nicknamed “the General” was totally transformed by the music. He spent most of his day setting by a window with his hands folded in his lap staring vacantly, oblivious to anything going on around him. However during the Wednesday sing-along, he would lift his head and in a clear tenor voice, harmonize to every song. After the concert was over, the residents quieted down, and slowly returned to their former selves. But in those 60 minutes the room was transformed into a vital chorus.
This is not an unusual occurrence. Scientific studies have shown that people with Alzheimer’s can remember through music. One reason for this transformation is that music is processed differently from verbal or written information. Music is a whole-brain activity. It works on both the cortical (i.e. the thinking part of the brain), and the sub-cortical (i.e. the parts of the brain responsible for reflexive, non-thinking and emotions). For this reason, people with dementia are able to react to music on a different level. People with Alzheimer’s or other dementias lose the ability to recognize family members or remember life events but music memory often survives. Even people with advanced dementia are often stimulated by music. In fact studies are revealing that music can be used in several ways with Alzheimer’s patients and they often respond to music when nothing else reaches them. Studies show that music can calm agitation and confusion in people with dementia. Music appears to influence such processes as self-esteem, and general well-being. It can help manage stress and lift the spirits.
Music has a close relationship with unconscious emotions and our inner feelings that are meaningful even if the person can’t remember who they are. Think about how listening to music effects your mood. Familiar songs often give us a vivid mental picture of a specific memory. Emotions and memory are linked which is likely the reason music can trigger memories. Keep in mind that music can be stimulating or soothing. Depending on the person, it can bring on emotions from joy to irritation. People with dementia will vary in their response to music depending on which stage of the disease they are experiencing. It can also change from day to day.
Music has become so recognized as helping older adults that in 1992 the U.S. Senate passed the Music Therapy for Older Americans Act into law. A special committee on aging introduced and passed Bill S.1723: Special Committee on Aging: “Forever Young; Music and Aging.” Washington: It included funding for music therapy, education, training and the distribution of information on music therapy and older adults.
Musicandmemory.org is a nonprofit group that promotes music therapy. They support the “iPod Project” to make music available to people with dementia living in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Donations of gently used iPods and MP3 players are sought after. Popular old-time music is loaded on the devices and they are taken to the facilities.
Many nursing homes, including the Cobble Hill Nursing Home in Brooklyn, have similar programs in their facilities. A recent YouTube video, Alive Inside, shows a Cobble Hill resident, Henry, participating in this program. The video starts with Henry sitting in his wheelchair with his head hanging and his eyes closed. When a staff member places an iPod on his head and starts playing music, he is obviously moved. He becomes animated, opens his eyes and speaks about how the music makes him feel.
You can easily develop a music therapy program for your loved one with dementia. If you are fortunate enough to know what kind of music he liked, start with that. The studies recommend songs from their era or lifestyle. For instance, if your loved one liked classical music, that’s most likely to have a more positive effect on them than country music. Typical songs used in many nursing homes include gospel hymns and old time songs such as “She’ll be coming around the mountain”, “You are my sunshine” and “Over the rainbow”. It may take a little trial and error. Watch for clues in their facial expressions and body language to try to determine the effect of the music. But one thing is for certain…..music does make a difference in everyone’s life.