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Music Therapy for Alzheimers

Music Therapy for Alzheimers
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Photo courtesy of Mac McDermott


Watching Mac McDermott and his 80-year old dad, Teddy, together is a pure joy. Listening them sing “Quando, Quando, Quando” together on a video that has been shared thousand of times will split your face with a smile. But the relationship between the two hasn’t always been so heartwarming.

Due to a late diagnosis and lost paperwork, the fact that Teddy has Alzheimer’s wasn’t discovered for months and by then the disease had taken quite a toll. It had gotten so bad that Teddy had to often be restrained, as he turned angry and physically violent. He no longer recognized his only son. With Teddy’s wife and Mac as his only caretakers, all concerned were exhausted, frustrated and despairing.

Teddy had been a factory worker, with a wonderful voice. He sang a bit here and there at weddings and community events until the 1970s when he auditioned and won a slot as a crooner for the Butlin’s Redcoats, a group of prestigious entertainers who worked the circuit of Britain’s most popular holiday camps. There he met his wife and he serenaded her and camp visitors for the rest of his career. Despite his illness, even now he still hums snatches of tunes around the house.

One day Mac took his father for a drive. What he discovered that afternoon would change his father’s life and the lives of other Alzheimer’s families in a big way. Mac began singing the lyrics to a song and his father joined in, sang every word and was letter (and pitch) perfect!

“It was amazing,” says Mac. “For the first time in a long time, my father was back in the room.”

Teddy knows (and sings) such a catalogue of songs, he has been dubbed “The Song-A-Minute-Man” and a website, Facebook page and YouTube videos of him belting out songs raise thousands for the caretakers and families of Alzheimer’s patients worldwide. The donations have even helped provided a telephone hotline for sufferers and their caretakers in the UK.

“It has been a miracle,” says Mac and he is not wrong. Even Alzheimer’s medical practitioners, used to racheting down expectations, acknowledge that music has great power and, as the website for The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America points out, “can spark compelling outcomes even in the very late stages of the disease.

Music can shift mood, manage stress-induced agitation, stimulate positive interactions, facilitate cognitive function, and coordinate motor movements. This happens because rhythmic and other well-rehearsed responses require little to no cognitive or mental processing. They are influenced by the motor center of the brain that responds directly to auditory rhythmic cues. A person’s ability to engage in music, particularly rhythm playing and singing, remains intact late into the disease process.”

Alzheimer’s has been called the “Generational Disease” of those of us who are Baby Boomers. We are very likely to be caring for someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia.

If you are one such caretaker, here are some things the experts want you to know when you are considering introducing music into your interaction with your love one:

  • Music evokes emotions. That connection can be so strong that hearing a song makes us remember events even years later.
  • Not all emotions are good ones. Observe carefully if your love one becomes agitated or sad, has more facial grimaces or muscle tenseness. Change the music if this happens.
  • Pick songs from the years when the person was between 18-25 years old. Songs from this time engage the person most strongly.
  • Use the mood of the song to your advantage. Stimulative music activates, sedative music quiets. Promote movement and exercise with the first and use the second when introducing a new activity or getting ready for sleep. “New” music the patient has never heard, and therefore has no emotional connection to, might work best here.
  • Use singing, rhythm playing, dancing or any structured music activity to redirect his or her attention when your loved one becomes agitated.
  • Touch is important to us all, but Alzheimer’s patients may lose their ability to share affection with loved ones. They can, however, still couple dance (which might evoke hugs, kisses and caresses) as long as they can still walk. When they can no longer walk, they can move their arms to the music or often allow gentle rocking or patting to the beat.
  • Singing is usually associated with safety from early childhood and allows both the patient and the caretaker to still connect.

Here’s how to try music therapy for every stage of Alzheimer’s or dementia:

Early stage

  • Research music from the period of their life and make a music history of favorite recording ( big help here). This “musical journey” can help with reminiscence and recall.
  • Listen to all types of music ( on your laptop or the streaming music station on your cable provider is a good thing. You can change your choice quickly—see below).
  • Perceptual changes can alter the way people with dementia hear music. If they say it sounds horrible, turn it off. It may sound horrible to them.
  • Go out dancing or dance in the house.
  • Check out types of concerts and music venues, but be ready to leave it if all proves too much for you or your loved one.
  • Provide an instrument the patient played. See if they will again. (Rent, don’t buy an instrument until you know).

Middle stage

  • Get a karoke machine and let the dementia patient read the lyrics as he or she sings.
  • Switch the mood of the home with background music playing (your cable TV music station or Pandora are good providers.)
  • Help your loved one’s balance or gait by playing music while they are walking.
  • Fight “sundowning” (problems at bedtime) with lullabies.

Late stage

  • Make use of that music history collection. Watch closely to see your loved ones reaction to different songs.
  • Exercise to music or, if the person is bedridden or not ambulatory, introduce drumming into the day. (Wrap the heads of hard drumsticks to avoid injury.)
  • Hold a sing-a-long (check out “Sing Along With Mitch” videos on YouTube.)
  • “Act out” the songs with facial expressions to communicate feelings about the music. Encourage your loved one to do the same.

Linda Maguire, the lead author of a study on Alzheimer’s care and music, wrote, “Musical aptitude and music appreciation are two of the last remaining abilities in patients with Alzheimer’s. Because these two abilities remain long after other abilities have passed, music is an excellent way to reach beyond the disease and reach the person.”

For more information on Music Therapy and dementia, visit The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America.


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