Music therapy for Alzheimers and demantia

Music is everywhere!

Auditory Stimulation – Our ears probably provide us with our second most vibrant source of sensory stimulation. Our eyes allow us to enjoy the paintings of Rembrandt and the sculpture of Michelangelo. Our ears allow us to share in the genius of Mozart and Beethoven; to wake up to a symphony of birds on a spring morning.

Auditory stimulation for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia is effective for mood enhancement, relaxation, and cognition; just as it is for everyone else. The calming effects of music are well known. Farmers play music to their cows, and the cows produce more and better milk. Music makes plants grow larger and healthier; at least according to some studies. Music is good for living things including people. In fact, Music Therapy is proving to be an effective Alternative Therapy for people with Alzheimer’s disease.

And it’s not just music that benefits dementia patients (and everyone else, as well). The sound of water, from a babbling brook or an artificial waterfall, is to the ear what a camp fire is to the eye. Bird songs are being studied to determine just how positively they effect the human brain.


Sounds for the mind and the brain

Natural sounds are probably the best for mood and meditation. A gentle rain, or the wind blowing through pine trees, can work magic. To stimulate cognition, a Mozart symphony is probably better. And the music that the Alzheimer’s patient enjoyed when he or she was younger is best to stimulate reminiscence. Therefore, a variety of sound stimulation is important.

Sound does not have to be pleasing or melodic to be effective. Rattles and other percussion musical instruments are also good, especially if the person with dementia is playing them. The physical activity and the stimulation of listening to and following a rhythm both add to the benefits of the passive auditory stimulation. Even “white noise” has been shown to improve memory in Alzheimer’s patients.

Auditory Stimulation & Alzheimer’s Disease

Sound stimulation can be used in various ways and with various effects, and can augment other fun and beneficial activities.

  • Reminiscence Music Therapy – An “oldie” comes on the radio – something you listened to in high school, and suddenly you’re back, cruising with your teenage sweetheart; maybe you’re on the way to the Friday night sock-hop, or  the football game. Life is good, as it so often is in reminiscences. Anyway, you know what it is like to have your memory jogged by an old song. It’s the same with people with Alzheimer’s. Familiar music is stimulating on several levels and is a strong and important component of a comprehensive reminiscence therapy routine.
  • Participatory Music and Rhythm – If the patient plays a musical instrument, help them to enjoy doing that as long as possible. Sounds produced on an electronic keyboard can be pleasing to them even if those sounds do not come together in recognizable tunes. Sing-alongs are fun and can stimulate memory (see the letter in the box below). Sing-alongs are fun when done with a leader, but can work with recorded music also. Rhythm sessions using drums, rattles, bells, washboards, sticks, etc. can accompany a sing-along, recorded music, or follow a leader. These percussion instruments can be found or made from things around the house. A water bottle filled with beans or gravel is a rattle. A coffee can is a drum. An oatmeal box is a drum with a different sound.
  • Sing-Alongs – Most memory care communities will have professional and semi-professional musicians visit periodically to lead the residents in familiar songs. Many people who have Alzheimer’s disease will remember song lyrics and enjoy singing them long after other communication skills and memories are gone. The stories in the Music and Memory text box at the bottom of this page provide two examples of this very common phenomenon. Each of the DVDs in the Video Respite series features a personality who will get viewers to sing along with a variety of old songs.
  • Background Sounds and White Noise – Stimulating sound or music playing in the background while other activities are going on improves the mood, and even the memory, of people with all forms of dementia. This background sound can be reminiscence music, classical music, recorded sounds of nature, or a table top fountain or waterfall. Many recordings of natural sounds are available; recordings of ocean waves, waterfalls, bird songs, or rain. These recordings of ambient sounds are also very good sleep and relaxation aids.
  • Exercise to Music – Use music to accompany exercise or movement as you would in an aerobic class, or to encourage patients to dance. In a group, dancing is a social activity that is also exercise and can involve touching (tactile stimulation). Physical exercise and reminiscence are two powerful tools for the management of Alzheimer’s, and combing the two will undoubtedly result in an enjoyable activity. Big band tunes, many of the old jazz standards, and even early rock-and-roll will be recognized, and the beat will inspire motion. This natural connection between music and motion is the reason that most exercise videos have music tracks to accompany the exercise. See our collection of exercise videos that we have put together specifically for our friends who are no longer running marathons or pumping iron.

Music and Memory

In her column, Your Health, in USA Today, Kim Painter shared a letter written to her by one of her readers:

She wrote: “A volunteer would come to Dad’s nursing home, attired in a straw hat and suspenders, with a banjo, to engage the residents in a sing-along session. My dad always sang the loudest, with great gusto, and despite his memory deficits, he knew the lyrics almost perfectly to the old-time popular songs of the ’30s and ’40s. … My dad was happy then. … It was as if this music brought him back to a realm of cognitive lucidity and anchored him in a firm time and place.”

Kim Painter, USA Today, 7/24/2006

It’s almost as if Ms. Tomaino was watching that woman’s father when she wrote:

It is always remarkable to watch a person completely removed from the “present” due to a disease such as Alzheimer’s.. come to life when a familiar song is played. The person’s response may vary from a change in posture to animated movement: from a sound to verbal response. But usually there is a response, an interaction. Many times these seemingly disparate responses can reveal much about the preservation of self and the intact personal stories that may still remain.(Tomaino 2000, p. 195)

Tomaino, C. M. Working with images and recollection with elderly patients. In Music Therapy in Dementia Care (pp. 195-211). D. Aldridge (Ed.). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

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