Contributing Writer: Rachelle Norman, music therapist and founder of Soundscape Music Therapy
We hear it every day. When we turn on the radio. When we stop into a restaurant or the grocery store. At the beginning of our favorite TV shows, and during the commercial breaks, too.
If we’re lucky, we’re making music too – singing rock anthems in the shower or Christian hymns during church, dancing with our grandkids, playing the family piano, or fiddling around on guitar.
Music infuses every part of our lives, to the point that we aren’t even aware of it all the time. And when our health status changes, music can become an important solace and joy, and the anchor to the world around us.
Music’s Impact on People with Alzheimer’s or other Dementia
Music often has a uniquely powerful impact on individuals living with dementia. In my 12+ years of practice as a music therapist, I’ve seen hundreds of people come alive with music. I’ve heard even more stories from family members and other caregivers who have found music to be one of the best ways to spend quality time with their loved ones, even as dementia steals away more and more of their other abilities and interests.
As neurological imaging tools have advanced, we’ve gained a new understanding of why music has this impact, too. We have been able to see how people’s brains light up when they are listening to music, especially in the emotional and motivational parts of the brain that often survive the longest for people with dementia. Just imagine what we’ll discover when scientists can look at the brain while people are playing in a band or dancing with their spouses!
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Music for Alzheimer’s and Dementia
We know from our own experiences that music is central to our day-to-day lives. We also know from science that music has a uniquely long-lasting impact for people with degenerative brain diseases. So, of course, we want to bring music into the relationships we have with people who have dementia.
The thing is, as with every other aspect of life, a person’s relationship with music shifts and changes as they live with dementia. As caregivers, it’s our responsibility to figure out the best ways to bring music into the picture, for the benefit of our care recipients and ourselves as caregivers.
Bringing Music Into The Caregiving Relationship
What should caregivers do?
First, bring the music. It’s great to start with a person’s favorites, but you can start with anything, really, and determine what appeals to them at this time of their life.
Second, share in the music. You don’t have to sit down and listen to every note together (and as a caregiver, you probably don’t have time anyway), but you can talk about the music, dance together for a song or two, or hum the melodies with them as you go through the day. You’ll also want to keep an eye out for strong emotional reactions to the music that a person with dementia shouldn’t have to experience alone.
Third, recruit some help. You can bring other musicians into the picture, too – cute young family members to do those miraculous toddler dances or first piano recital songs, or a music therapist to provide friendly musical visits or music “lessons” that fit this stage in life. In this way, you give the person with dementia more opportunities to engage in music in a way that’s meaningful to them.
Fourth, don’t go overboard. You can have too much of a good thing, and people with dementia can become overstimulated or frustrated by a constant stream of music. Allow time for silence, too.
Want more ideas and strategies for bringing music into caregiving for people with dementia? Check out Rachelle’s site at: Soundscaping Source.
About the author: Rachelle Norman has been a making music with older adults and their caregivers for 12 years. A board-certified music therapist, Rachelle works directly with older adults in senior living and hospice, and she serves as a consultant and staff trainer for eldercare organizations across the country.
Rachelle is also on the music therapy faculty at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, has courses published through Relias Learning and MusicTherapyEd.com, and has an active blog and e-newsletter for caregivers wanting to use music in their work.
If you would like to learn more on this topic, be sure to watch the replay of the Together in This Empowerment workshop where Rachelle shared additional tips:
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