Improving the Lives of Alzheimer’s Patients with Music

Michigan Elder Law Attorney Comments on Music for Alzheimer’s Patients

Music has a deep connection to our emotions and memories. Recalling old memories and emotions of past events is the universal reaction to hearing an old tune. This connection between music and memory is so powerful that even Alzheimer’s patients experience it. In addition to helping patients reminisce, it can alter their moods. Depending on the music, it can calm them when they’re anxious or uplift when depressed. Music has been used to stimulate interaction and coordinate body movement.

How Music Reaches The Alzheimer’s Patient

Music promotes memory association because lasting and strong memories have an emotional component. People experience countless inconsequential events in their lives that are never stored in long-term memory. Those that are stored usually have a strong emotional component. This is why we remember the happiest moments of our lives as well as the most traumatic. Music plays on the emotions. This in turn pulls up emotion based memories.

The process of triggering memories with music requires very little or no cognitive processing. This is why music is so effective at helping people with Alzheimer’s recall memories and emotions. Beyond the recollection of memories, music also increases engagement in the form of singing and dancing. Again this requires very little cognitive involvement because music directly influences the motor control areas of the brain. This makes music an effective way to reach people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Tips On Music Selection

  • Since music can evoke both positive and negative emotions, it’s important to learn which music the person enjoys. Pay attention to their reaction and allow them to choose if possible.
  • The music they enjoyed during their youth tends to be most effective. The more advanced the disease, the further back in time you must go. You can start with music they heard in their teens and twenties and go back to music they heard or sang to in childhood.
  • Choose a selection to influence mood. If the person is feeling tense, choose soothing music. Soothing music is also useful for preparing him or her for bedtime. Use faster paced music to increase their spirit or dance tunes to stimulate movement. This choice helps with activities such as bathing or getting dressed. When playing upbeat music with a good tempo, encourage engagement such as clapping or dancing.
  • Avoid music with commercials because it may cause confusion. Use recorded music rather than the radio.
  • Minimize competing sound. Other sources of sound such as a television set, another music source, or outside sounds, combine with the music to produce unsettling noise.
  • Choose music and engagement styles based on the person’s personality and interests. Some people prefer higher tempo music and like to sing, clap, or dance to music. Others, such as those who had intense interest in classical music, will prefer to listen with rapt attention. Although their expression of enjoyment isn’t as obvious as hand clapping and dancing, it can be seen in their faces and eyes.
  • Make use of unfamiliar music. Unfamiliar music is useful for calming and relaxing a person without evoking memories and emotions. This is desirable when preparing him or her for bed or when trying to reduce stress.

The effect of music is dramatically demonstrated by this video of an Alzheimer’s patient. Henry is transformed in minutes from a person who can’t answer simple yes and no questions and who can’t recognize his daughter, into an animated and engaged person happily humming to the music he hears. This effect continues to persist after the music headphone is removed so that he can be questioned about his experience. Henry answers the questions with coherent sentences. He was able to explain his love for music and talk about his favorite artist. Clearly, a great deal of information is still present within his mind, and music was the stimulus that brought it out. Somehow the music engaged his higher mental functioning as well.

To learn more about Alzheimer’s disease and how to cope with its effects on a loved one, please contact us.

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