The Magic of Music and Dementia

A pretty universal pleasure is listening to music.  I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t enjoy listening to music, each to his or her own style.  It is a common type of activity in most assisted living and nursing homes to play music or have sing-a-longs.   These are usually very popular with the residents.  Music has a powerful way of bringing back memories, often happy ones of good times and days well spent.

With both my dad and grandpa I would play music for them that was appropriate to their musical tastes and the generation they grew up in.

I once was in an assisted living facility where the activities director was trying to get her residents into some music she was playing and wasn’t having much success, afterwards I pulled her aside and explained to her that the music she had was from the 1910’s and for her residents who were born in the late 20’s and 30’s it was basically like listening to your parent’s music.

So, while listening to music is a powerful thing, it is important to know what kind of music will appeal to your loved one or resident.  Talk to them about the artists they loved listening to and the style of music.  The music I’ve included in this blog is a sample of things that my grandpa would enjoy listening to, but not what I played for my dad.

When dealing with someone with dementia I have seen how wonderfully music can help calm agitated behaviors.  With one client, I would select a music channel on the television in her room and she would go from being upset and anxious to calm and trying to dance with the tune.

Many assisted living and nursing homes are now working on a trial program to see if having a special playlist of music for their dementia residents is more effective than medication in dealing with sundowner’s syndrome.  So far the results seem promising.

Late in his disease my dad was completely bed-bound and almost totally non-responsive, but we had one CD of military march cadences that we would play for him (he was in the Marine Corps during Vietnam).  While that CD was playing it was pretty common to see him moving his feet as if he were trying to march with the cadence.  This always impressed me, to see him responding in some way to anything was amazing!

Recently I was with a client and pulled out my smart phone and began playing big band/swing era music for him.  He just smiled and started talking about all the fun he had as a young man listening to the very songs I was playing for him.

This is the power of music.  Think about the music that was popular when you were in high school and in your early 20’s and how you feel when you listen to it.  This is the same feeling your loved one gets from listening to the music that was popular during that same time in their lives.

Another time when music can be helpful in caregiving is at the end of life.  The peaceful feeling you derive from listening to your favorite music can help calm some anxiety when it comes to dying.  Hearing is usually the last sense to go as our bodies draw within themselves and so music can work it’s magic until the end.

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