The ‘Magic’ of Music – Enhancing Memory and Quality of Life

 I’ve been researching music and memory. I wanted to know why am I suddenly transported into my childhood kitchen when my husband plays a classic country song – a style of music that really doesn’t appeal to me? This is my mother’s music. A George Jones hit could bring back the smell of bacon, eggs, and coffee. My mom’s humming returns. I can ‘hear’ the sounds of food frying and paper bags crinkling as she prepared our sack lunches for school as well as a hearty country breakfast. If listening to the music from my past could transport me back in time, what would happen if we helped our loved ones listen to their music?

Why is it, too, that some people with dementia who haven’t spoken in weeks, can suddenly sing every word of a hymn or recite the Lord’s Prayer? For answers, I looked to the experts. Teepa Snow has an excellent video on YouTube that explains how those with dementia can still sing and recite. She also explains in the video why the use of ugly words is sometimes prevalent in those with dementia.  Take a look HERE, if you’d like to watch. And, check out her organization HERE. She an amazing trailblazer in educating folks about dementia! You won’t regret one minute you spend learning from her.

To sum it up, she shares that language production is often slipping away as a person progresses into dementia. At the same time, though, the rhythm, songs, sayings and poetry, words we don’t say in polite company, and social graces all remain with the condition. (This can sometimes explain why a sibling who lives far away doesn’t ‘see’ the dementia in your parent… The surface language – social chit-chat – remains intact. “Mom sounds fine, ” they say.) 

Can music bring back speech?

Let’s use their STRENGTHS to make their lives better. By firing up the right side of the brain by listening to music, we can also enhance that left side a little. What that means is that those who have difficulty speaking can sometimes regain that ability by listening to music for a few minutes. Watch this video or this one to see examples of how this works. Just amazing to see the difference in their ability to speak following the session of listening to music! Music appears to ‘prime the pump’ for conversation.

What to do?

Knowing that listening to music lifts moods, encourages movement and dance, enhances cognition and memory, and gives us a meaningful, purposeful activity to pursue is key. Music can make brighten the day. It can bring a person from despair to hope. Singing can trigger the release of the ‘feel good’ hormone – oxytocin – and help bind us together. So, on to the ‘how to’s…

Use THEIR music, not yours…

First, find THEIR music. All the studies about the benefits of music for those with dementia point to the fact that people react better to their preferred music. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Don’t you remember your mom or dad asking you to ‘turn down that noise’ as you rocked out in your bedroom? Haven’t you heard music that irked you – that made your skin crawl?

To find THEIR preferred music, we need to do a little math and a little searching the internet. Most people prefer music they heard between the ages of 10 and 30. So someone born in the late 1930’s would prefer music from the late 1940’s to the late 1960’s.

What if I don’t know my person’s musical taste?

There are many styles of music that were popular from the 1940s to 1960s. What if you don’t know that much about your loved one? Or, what if you are a care partner and did not know your person very well before you started helping them?

To find their music, ask them! Keep in mind that many in this generation attended church. Don’t forget to look for hymns or spiritual songs often sung at services. If your person can’t tell you, look around. Find their records or CDs. See what they have in the collection. Most people buy music for themselves or receive it as gifts from others who know them well.

Finding music preferences together.

Additionally, search YouTube or Spotify. Look for the music that may appeal to them. Play a song and watch their reaction. If they seem to ‘light up,’ begin moving along, or start singing, you may have a winner. Then, try other music of the same era and style. Write down your findings or create a playlist for them.

Try other types of music as well. Big Band, Bluegrass, Classical, Salsa, Ballroom music, the sky is the limit! Who knows? You may discover your dad was a ballroom dancer or that your mother knows every word to ‘Sweet Caroline!’

Usually, I like to go song by song to discover preferences. After all, I certainly don’t like all the songs of some of my favorite performers. Why would they? Instead, listen together to find singers and songs that they prefer. I do wish you good luck in bringing more music into your world and theirs! Who knows, you may also find a new favorite!

This article was written by Letitia Berkey, Bethlen Communities Dementia Education Partner, BA, Certified Nurse Aide, Certified Dementia Practitioner, Certified Alzheimer’s Disease Dementia Care Trainer, Certified Dementia Care Manager, Certified Dementia Support Group Facilitator. 

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