Alzheimer’s patientsThere were the nursery rhymes and playground chants you repeated so many times as a kid you feel like you’ll never get them out of your head. And the first time you found a tune that really seemed to capture the sensation of heartbreak. Not to mention the “favorite songs” you might list on a social media survey. At all ages and stages, music is a huge part of our lives. As research suggests, music therapy for dementia may be the key to unlocking the deep, entrenched memories from dementia and Alzheimer’s patients.

Regency Retirement Village of Huntsville was recently certified for a program called “Music and Memory”. We are the first and only memory care neighborhood in the Huntsville area using this program. It is a pilot program we hope to implement companywide before the end of the year.

Studies and popular videos show that even unresponsive seniors who are challenged by short-term memories, overwhelmed by background noise, and who have trouble connecting to and relating to others can come alive when the right song is piped through their headphones. Their toes start tapping, their heads start to shake, and they begin to speak about the music they loved in their younger years, sharing feelings and opinions long dormant.

Stimulating music with an up-tempo beat and strong percussion tends to build the energy of mental patients, while calm, slow music can soothe. Just like everyone else, there’s always the perfect song for any given moment. Depending on the individual’s mood and the time of day, syncopated rhythms can engage and inspire, and quiet melodies can help combat agitation. Music may be the food of love, and if so, the loved ones of memory care patients should play on.

It can be difficult to know how to talk to someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Memory challenges can feel like a barrier for both parties. Some tips you can use to help include minding your body language, keeping it loose and open. Instead of crossing your arms, set them on the table in a way that invites conversation. If conversation becomes difficult, a distraction can help. Go for a walk, play a game, or put a song both can enjoy on the stereo that’s appropriate for the mood. You’d be surprised what a quick change a good tune can illicit in those with memory challenges.

MRIs of memory care patients show that not only do auditory processing centers of the brain light up when familiar music is played, the whole neural network lights up. That’s because music stimulates not only sensory parts of the brain but emotion, memory, current events, and more. It truly has a full-cognitive effect.

More and more memory care centers and retirement facilities are exploring how memory care can be aided by music therapy. Hearing certain songs can not only help patients recall long-ago associations, it can revive “procedural” memories like how to play piano or guitar. That’s because Alzheimer’s and dementia don’t only affect short-term and long-term memory, but other mental faculties as well, like emotion and personality. Memory disorders can cause withdrawal from a world that is suddenly difficult to navigate.

That’s why it’s important to create environments that inspire familiarity and tap deeply into whole individuals are at their core. Familiar settings, dear objects, old clothes, and memorable songs can all contribute to the internal parts of us that might not remember song lyrics or the color of a shirt, but do recall the way we felt at a certain diner in 1965 or where we were at in the year 1952 when a certain hit was constantly on the radio.

It can be hard for loved ones to adjust to changes in the personality of someone with a memory disorder, but there are silver linings. You have a chance to ask a loved one about the songs they loved in their youth and why they are still memorable and inspiring. You have a chance to get to know someone not just in the present, but in the context of their past. And you have a chance to see the old made young again by experiencing the music that made them who they are.

Written by Meghan O’Dea

Photo by Steven Stiefel