The power of music in dementia care

Music is very powerful, and research shows it is therapeutic for people with dementia. The Wisconsin Dementia Care System Redesign: A Plan for a Dementia-Capable Wisconsin (published earlier this year by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services) recommends the Music & Memory program, which teaches caregivers and health professionals how to create play lists of “favorite songs” that are then delivered using an iPod with headphones. The program is evidence based, and I have every reason to believe that it works because I have done something similar on my own with my mother. Because she lives at home with me, we do not need to worry about disturbing anyone with our music, so headphones are not necessary; besides, Mom doesn’t care for the headphones and she is always pulling on them or on the cord, so we just use a small CD boombox to play our music.

While it is important to find music that is meaningful, there are several songs that are universal and well-liked and known by just about everyone, such as “You Are My Sunshine,” “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean,” and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” For my mom, there is one song that always snaps her out of a bad mood (whether it is sundowning, anxiety, or hallucinations) and that’s the old German folk tune “Du, Du Liegst Mir Im Herzen.” Some of her other favorites are “Bicycle Built for Two,” “The Band Played On,” “I’m Looking Over A Four-Leaf Clover,” and “Wooden Heart.” Repetition is not a problem. She can listen to these few songs over and over, and for people with dementia, the repetition can help: it might take a few choruses of “You Are My Sunshine” before they start singing along.

I happen to be musically inclined: I play piano and guitar and I like to sing, so music has always been a part of my mom’s therapy at home. She responds much better to “live” music than recorded music. If I play my guitar in her room, she is much more engaged. If I play a CD of a familiar singer (like Elvis) it is mostly just background noise and she doesn’t respond as well. It’s when I (or someone else in her room) sing to her and with her when music has the best response. The only thing was I was playing my guitar or keyboard so often that my fingers hurt. So I decided to record the songs, just using the built-in mic on my laptop and then burning the songs to a CD that plays in her boombox. It has the effect of “live” music, but I can be doing other things while we sing (such as washing her hair or doing the dishes).

Even if you cannot play an instrument, you can still sing together, and you can still record it so you can play it back as much and as often as needed.

I uploaded an example of our “music therapy” to YouTube. So here we are singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” — (it is also linked on my Google+ page if you’re interested in checking it out).

About Doug Seubert

My name is Doug Seubert and I live in Wisconsin (USA). I am working toward a Masters in public health, and I am the President and CEO of a new non-profit organization: Marshfield Area Purple Angels. My blogs share resources, tools, and information about various public health topics, with a strong emphasis on community health education, effective health communication, and health literacy. I am also the creator of "The End of Life Survival Guide" featuring tips and resources for caregivers of a loved one near the end of life.
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