The Big Effect Music Can Have on Dementia PatientsWhat was the first song you learned to pick out on the guitar chord by chord? Or the him you looked forward to most in church? Have you ever felt like a certain song follows you around, popping up on the radio or on store sound systems when you least expect it? Music is such a huge part of being yuma— some studies even suggest that its effects on our cognitive abilities have become hardwired into our evolutionary makeup.

Because music has such a strong effect at all ages, it should be of no surprise that it can have a profound effect on Alzheimer’s and dementia patients who struggle to process the present moment and can have difficulty accessing past memories. But because music pings a different part of the brain than conversation, emotion, and physical sensation, the right song can touch a person cognitively much the way it has their whole lives. Not only that, neural pathways can be stimulated by music, causing even affected areas of the mind to light up when a familiar song comes on.

One popular YouTube video shows a senior citizen who is much withdrawn from the world, barely responding even to his visitors and regular caretakers. One day, a nurse gives him an iPod and headphones and puts a song on from when he was young. His eyes light up. He begins rocking and moving to the music. He’s delighted to answer questions about the song. It sparks conversation. The physical manifestations of his feelings are readily apparent.

While not every memory impaired person can look forward to such a dramatic response, there is ample scientific evidence that suggests music therapy has a wealth of benefits to offer seniors. It can become a fun family project to put together playlists based on memories of songs your loved one enjoys, are tied to significant moments, or were popular during their high school and college years. Look up chords if they once enjoyed playing the piano or guitar. Find lyrics so you can sing along together.

Encouraging tapping your toes, moving your shoulders, and getting your best chair dance on. Fully participate in the moment. Pay attention to your loved one’s mood throughout the song, to see if it’s agitating them or calming them. Don’t mistake excitement for distress. Keep your body language open and stay responsive to what your loved one has to offer.

Some of the biggest stressors for those with memory impairments can come from a hard to interpret tone, closed off body language, isolation, or over-stimulation from background noise or a hectic environment. If your loved one becomes agitated, try going for a walk, offering a snack, or putting on a soothing song. Tailor the playlist to their mood, having calming songs on hand for moments of agitation and up-tempo songs for when they are ready for stimulation.

Other tips for helping those with memory loss can include asking “yes” or “no” questions in conversation and limiting options when you ask a question involving choices. Instead of asking what they’d like to do that day, you might ask “would you like to go to the park, or for a drive?” Also, it helps to avoid chastising your loved one when they have trouble. It might be tempting to ask them “don’t you remember?” but this can cause stress and confusion.

Memory care is a crucial component of senior care and helping our elders live full lives even when they undergo physical, mental, or emotional changes. One of the wonderful things about music is that even when many things have changed—our bodies, our memories, our moods—it’s one thing we can count on. The way it affects us is constant throughout our lives. We can always count on music to invoke powerful feelings that remind us of what in us is essentially human, at all ages and stages.

Written by Meghan O’Dea