A drum beat, a guitar strum, a melody, a song. A toe tap, a finger snap, and soon you’re humming along. Music can move us emotionally and physically without us having to even think about it. Its power to reach past the mind and touch the soul has a soothing therapeutic effect particularly beneficial to someone with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias.

A senior happily plays her piano.

A study published in the Journal of Music Therapy1 demonstrated that playing familiar background music helped to increase positive social behaviors in people with Alzheimer’s and decrease negative behaviors related to agitation.

Music has also been proven to drastically decrease anxiety and depression in people with Alzheimer’s disease, according to a study published in the Journal of Dementia and Geriatric Cognitive Disorders 2. One caregiver summed up her experience with music saying that she would wake her husband up every morning to the Louis Armstrong song, “Wonderful World,” and “He always started the day in a great mood.”

Even when the usual means of communication become inhibited by the effects of Alzheimer’s or other dementias, those experiencing memory loss still remember and respond to music.

You can leverage the power of music in a number of different ways to lift the spirits of a family member with dementia and unlock memories from long ago.

One way is to create a “life soundtrack” that includes memorable songs from your loved one’s childhood, teenage, young adult and older years. Research the top hits from each decade of your loved one’s life, find out what songs were played at his or her wedding, and pick out some well-loved hymns or carols. If your family member with dementia used to play a musical instrument, include music featuring that instrument as well.

You can also encourage your family member with dementia to not just listen but take part in the music making. According to Preserve Your Memory magazine3, singing daily has a positive effect on one’s mental state. Many senior centers and other community organizations provide opportunities to sing with a group, play an instrument (even if just a woodblock or tambourine), or simply clap along. And when you play the soundtrack you created for you loved one, sing along together. You may be surprised how many lyrics your loved one still remembers by heart.

Sources:

1. Journal of Music Therapy, Winter 2007: “The Effect of Background Stimulative Music on Behavior in Alzheimer’s Patients”

2. Journal of Dementia and Geriatric Cognitive Disorders, July 2009: “Effect of Music Therapy on Anxiety and Depression in Patients with Alzheimer’s Type Dementia”

3. Preserve Your Memory, Winter 2011: “Celebrating Senior Sounds.”

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