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6 Ways to Music Helps Dementia Patients

Woman with headphones

Music, like laughter or math, is a language that reaches across cultures. But can it also help those with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia? Some recent studies suggest that music may improve cognitive function. It may  even help patients remember new information. That’s good news! But the research remains limited whether music can improve memory.

Music therapy has long been used to manage behavioral symptoms. Our brains process music differently than other memories. Music can provide a way to connect with a loved one when other ways have failed. It can also cause us to remember happy events. Hearing a favorite song might simply bring a smile. Here are some tips:

  1. Choose the Songs. What songs do you remember your parent singing? Music from his or her early adulthood is most likely to get the best response. Songs from childhood may work better if your loved one's dementia is advanced. Try to find 100 to 200 songs.
  2. Create a Mood. Put together playlists for different settings. Play soothing music for bedtime to calm someone down. Upbeat songs lift spirits on a rainy day. Keep in mind that unfamiliar music might help in some settings, precisely because it doesn’t cause memories.
  3. Avoid Distraction. If there are too many sounds, your loved one may not know what to listen to.  Turn off the TV or limit outside noises.  If you’re getting the music from a website or a service such as Pandora.com or Spotify.com, be sure it’s commercial-free. Ads can cause confusion.
  4. Get Moving. Dance with your loved one, if possible. Swaying to the beat, clapping hands, or tapping toes can add to the experience. And, by all means, encourage singing along!
  5. Tweak as Needed. Watch to see how your family member reacts to the songs. Change  the playlists if you need to. Sometimes a happy song brings up sad memories, for example. Or a tune might just become boring after a while.
  6. Enlist Professional Help. If you want more guidance, the American Music Therapy Association has a directory of music therapists. The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America offers hints on bringing music into your loved one’s life.

The bottom line is that there is lots of good and little bad when you make music a part of your elder’s routine.

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