When a loved one is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia, one of the hardest things is watching pieces of them slip away. They might start to struggle with names and faces, and beloved memories you might share with them begin to fade.
As the disease progresses, it takes away more and more, and you can feel helpless as the person you’ve loved doesn’t seem to recognize their own life.
But then, a certain song will come on, and suddenly their eyes light up, they sit up a little straighter and their foot starts tapping along to the beat. And then lo and behold, they remember the words. And there they are, singing along.
It seems entirely improbable that someone living with memory decline, who may not remember their spouse, can sing along to lyrics from a 50-year-old song. But there is a reason for it: as the Mayo Clinic notes, “Musical memories are often preserved in Alzheimer’s disease because key brain areas linked to musical memory are relatively undamaged by the disease.”
It’s why music and singing are so vital in memory care: it can spark something in residents and create a sense of joy and community.
Benefits of Music for Those With Memory Decline
For someone living with memory decline, the right song at the right time is about more than just remembering the lyrics. Because the area of the brain that stores music can remain untouched by the disease, it can unlock other powerful elements to help their well-being.
Maybe the song that played at your loved one’s wedding can help them remember that event. Maybe a song from their childhood opens up a memory from that time. Or even without those specific instances, it can just be good for their overall state of mind.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “Studies have shown music may reduce agitation and improve behavioral issues that are common in the middle-stages of the disease.”
And as A Place for Mom notes, there are other benefits as well, including reduced stress, lower levels of depression and better sleep.
Tips for Caregivers
If you’re a caregiver for a loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia, what does that mean for you and how you care for them? There are some tips and best practices to getting the most out of music with your loved one. Here are a couple of tips to help find the right notes with your loved one:
- Streaming services are great options as you can tailor the channels to artists and eras your loved one enjoys. However, it’s best to pay for tiers that don’t have commercials. Those living with memory decline can become confused when a commercial interrupts the flow of the songs.
- Music tends to have the biggest impact on people in their youth – it’s why songs form our teen years resonate the most with us. So find pop music from that time in your loved one’s life. The University of Kansas has a great resource page to help you find the right mix.
- Encourage movement as part of the song. That doesn’t mean someone needs to get up and dance (although if they want to, that’s great). It can mean clapping along to the beat, playing a makeshift drum, even just swaying in their chair.
For all the benefits music and singing can have with those living with memory decline, it plays a role in assisted living as well.
Along with many of the mental health and emotional benefits noted above, singing can also provide an aerobic workout, which can be particularly important as many older adults can’t run or engage in cardiovascular activities. Instead, it’s singing that can improve lung function, circulation and release hormones that fight stress.