Music is transformative. It can make us joyful, sad, nostalgic, or just simply want to get up and dance. But for patients with Alzheimer’s it can do much more than that. Research done in conjunction with the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America has shown that listening to tunes can re-energize and sharpen the thinking of Alzheimer’s patients.
For anyone suffering from Alzheimer’s, the phrase “miracle of music” has taken on a whole new meaning. In fact, the discovery that music can have such a dramatic effect on Alzheimer’s patients has led to a new course of treatment: music therapy. It turns out that music can affect dementia sufferers the same way music affects most of us, cutting through their mental haze and bringing them out of their shell.
The Healing Power of Music
The therapy is easy, cheap, and enjoyable for both the patient and caregiver. Suggested techniques vary depending on how advanced the patient’s Alzheimer’s is. Some early stage patients enjoy picking up an instrument they once played, listening to music that evokes positive memories, or going dancing. For late stage Alzheimer’s patients, sing-alongs, soothing music, or basic drumming can all be therapeutic.
“Alive Inside,” an award-winning documentary about the powerful connection between memory and music, shows how listening to familiar songs can combat memory loss.1 The incredible film, created by Michael Rossato-Bennet, follows the work of a non-profit called Music & Memory. The organization plays personalized music for Alzheimer’s patients to stunning effect.
In one astonishing scene2 we see an old man named Henry suffering from advanced dementia. He is clearly in his own world, unable to interact with the people around him or even recognize his own daughter. But after listening to his favorite Cab Calloway record, he is completely changed. He talks at length about what songs he likes, how the beautiful music makes him feel, and the dances he attended in his youth.
The Music and Memory Connection
The reason why music is so powerful for many Alzheimer’s patients has to do with the way that the brain works. Rhythmic and familiar sounds, like a favorite song, bypass our normal information reception route and go directly to the brain’s motor center. This means even extremely late-stage Alzheimer’s patients are able to dance, sway, or sing along to some songs.3
Another way music can revitalize the brain is through the strong link between music and memory. Many of us associate songs with specific emotions or life events. This means that loved ones can pick out favorite songs – usually those from the patient’s young adult years or folk music – for an especially positive emotional response. Conversely, unfamiliar music will not create an emotional connection, although it can have a stimulative or sedative effect.4
Creating Your Own Music Therapy
If you have ever cared for someone suffering from Alzheimer’s, you know what a struggle it can be to maintain emotional stability and connections with the outside world. The promise that music therapy shows is immense. It doesn’t require any special training or equipment, just a knowledge of the patient.
Use tunes that the patient has a positive association with, like childhood favorites, and let the person listen for a while. Usually after about twenty minutes, there is some positive response, and the patient will become more talkative. Other effects can be increased sociability, appetite, and elevated mood. The effects of a music therapy session can last for hours afterwards, and sessions can be repeated on a daily basis.5