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Music & Dementia

“Music and songs bear witness to our lives, connecting us to our inner world
and giving voice to our experiences.”.

For people with memory loss, music and songs have a special significance. As the long term memory is activated it restores a sense of ‘remembered self’. Music creates relaxation, a return to fond memories and feelings of calm and security. Music reorients the person and distracts them from the stresses of life. It may help to lift a person out of depression.

Music has power—especially for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. And it can spark compelling outcomes even in the very late stages of the disease. When used appropriately, music can shift mood, manage stress-induced agitation, stimulate positive interactions, facilitate cognitive function, and coordinate motor movements.

This happens because rhythmic and other well-rehearsed responses require little to no cognitive or mental processing. They are influenced by the motor center of the brain that responds directly to auditory rhythmic cues. A person’s ability to engage in music, particularly rhythm playing and singing, remains intact late into the disease process because, again, these activities do not mandate cognitive functioning for success.


'How-to' of Music Therapy

Early stage -

  • Go o ut dancing or dance in the house.
  • Listen to music that the person liked in the past—whether swing or Sinatra or salsa. Recognize that perceptual changes can alter the way individuals with dementia hear music. If they say it sounds horrible, turn it off; it may to them.
  • Experiment with various types of concerts and venues, giving consideration to endurance and temperament.
  • Encourage an individual who played an instrument to try it again.
  • Compile a musical history of favorite recordings, which can be used to help in reminiscence and memory recall.

Early and middle stages -

  • Use song sheets or a karaoke player so the individual can sing along with old-time favorites.

Middle stage -

  • Play music or sing as the individual is walking to improve balance or gait.
  • Use background music to enhance mood.
  • Opt for relaxing music—a familiar, non-rhythmic song—to reduce sundowning, or behavior problems at nighttime.

Late stage -

  • Utilize the music collection of old favorites that you made earlier.
  • Do sing-alongs, with “When the Saints Go Marching In” or other tunes sung by rote in that person’s generation.
  • Play soothing music to provide a sense of comfort.
  • Exercise to music.
  • Do drumming or other rhythm-based activities.
  • Use facial expressions to communicate feelings when involved in these activities.




From Our Personal Experiences

"I grew up in a musical family. My mother played piano, My father was a jazz pianist and my brother is still a professional touring musician, composer and teacher. In fact all my brothers and sisters including me learned to play several instruments and have many fond music related memories throughout my life.
Once we had placed my mother into the nursing home, I also recall many occassions where my father would go in and play old big band and dixieland Jazz music on the piano. I recall watching with the nursing staff how my mother and the residents would attentively listen, clap, sing or even dance with each other and the nurses as he played. It was at times like they had re-visited a period of their lives at a dance or concert".


My mother playing the piano at an earlier time

Here are a few tips on how to use music at home with your friend or relative.

  1. Relax together - Music can promote relaxation. There are many different kinds of relaxation music such as nature CDs or classical music compilations of slow and regular movements. Music that is familiar to your friend or relative may often be most effective.
  2. Listen together - Find time to sit down and listen together. It doesn’t have to be a long session. Music becomes a vehicle for communication and provides opportunities for sharing and relaxing. Gentle massage of hands, shoulders or feet can become part of a regular ritual. Ask a friend, family member or volunteer to help out if you are too busy.
  3. Sing together - Use a sing-along CD or DVD or sing without recorded music. Pick favorite songs to sing together. Sing while assisting your friend or relative in the shower and during other everyday tasks.
  4. Move and dance together - Try moving to music – position yourself in front of the person, hold hands and sway from side to side. Dancing together is good, especially if your friend or relative used to dance in their youth. You don’t have to be an expert. Just try moving together while holding hands, or try a traditional ballroom position.
  5. Invite friends to visit and perform live - Listen to other people sing or play instruments, particularly children. This is a wonderful activity that your friend or relative with dementia will enjoy.
  6. Get the kitchen band working - Bang with a wooden spoon on a pot in time to some rhythmic music. Invest in a small hand drum, a set of maracas or sleigh bells from your local music shop to add interest. If you feel unsure about playing percussion instruments, ask a primary school child to show you what fun it can be.
  7. Attend concerts - If appropriate, try attending concerts if there is a familiar program that your friend or family member will enjoy. Contact your local community center to find out what’s on.