Music is a powerful thing. It is part of our lives from the time we are young to the time we die, and triggers memories and emotions in us. Listening to certain songs tend to bring back feelings and emotions from a particular time in our lives. Music and emotions activate in the same part of the brain, which is why music has the power to sooth or to energize. Music can bring calm to a difficult day, energize and add a spark to an exercise program, help you focus to complete a task, or raise your spirits.
Dementia care researchers are studying whether music can help caregivers be less stressed and more successful as they take care of the people they love. Recent studies have found that patterned behavior can be more effective when accompanied by a song. In one such project, the caregiver found that if he sang the cues to his mother, who had dementia, she was much more willing to participate. For example, before the addition of the musical cue, she called prune juice poison and would not touch it. However when he sang a song about drinking it, she was more willing to drink it. He also sang bathroom cues, and other cues for activities of daily living, with similar results.
Researchers are also testing whether music may help people with dementia retain new information. They have found that when information is sung to the person, he or she retains it longer than if the information was spoken. Memories are made in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that Alzheimer’s disease attacks first. They theorize that since music uses different parts of the brain to create memories which aren’t as damaged by the disease, music can access an alternative memory center. This theory is supported by anecdotal evidence that people who do not recognize their own family and typically sit and stare into space, sometimes “wake up” and have a short logical conversation after listening to their favorite music. Check out this touching youtube video illustrating this effect!
I have been in Marden’s Place Memory Care at Sierra View Homes Retirement Community when the residents were attending a hymn sing along. I was amazed how many of the residents not only knew the first verse but could sing with gusto all the verses of favorite hymns.
If you are a caregiver of someone who is slowly losing short-term memory, try to find some music from the time they were young. The music should come from some time when they were between 10 and 30 years of age. Find those favorite songs they recognize. You may be able to enjoy the positive energy that happens as your loved one listens and remembers long forgotten memories. Also, consider singing the cues you give for use of the restroom, eating, getting dressed and more. Have an “eat your lunch song,” “brush your teeth song,” “toilet use” song, and the list goes on. Using tunes like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star but changing the words to give the cue is a good place to start. A tune you make up yourself is good too. You are hopefully triggering a part of the brain that still functions quite well.
Marden’s Place staff has found that music can redirect residents and stop sad emotions. At the meal time, soft soothing music is played to encourage the residents to relax and enjoy the meal. Sierra View Homes also uses drum circles where each resident gets to play a rhythm instrument to a familiar song. The circles are well attended and the residents are attentive and happy – even family members participate!
Music plays a part in our overall demeanor throughout our lives. We listen to music in all sorts of ways and for many reasons. A song can transport us back in time to a special memory, encourage us, stimulate us, or give us peace of mind during a stressful time. Now we are seeing it might help people with dementia have more quality of life. I encourage you to incorporate music into your day if you are a caregiver of someone with dementia. Hopefully you will see positive results for a less stressful day.