11 Kinds of Music to "Soothe the Savage Beast" of Dementia

Last updated: November 13, 2008

Why is it that I can remember the lyrics of every awful 70s pop tune I catch the merest snatch of while turning a radio dial, but not the name of the street two miles away? The answer is good news; that is, if you spend time with someone who has Alzheimer's, dementia, or Parkinson's Disease.

Music lodges uniquely deep in the recesses of the brain -- and therefore can still be tapped long after other abilities have failed. Musical memories are a complicated code of primal emotions, cognition, movement, and language. It both calms and provides sensory and social stimulation. But there's an even better reason to bring singing, listening, playing, and dancing into the life of someone with a dementing illness: to provide them with the deep pleasure and reassurance brought by enjoying moments of wholeness and clarity.

For a person with a neurological impairment, music can "stimulate a sense of identity as nothing else can," says neurologist Oliver Sacks, who writes about the evocative powers of music in last year's bestseller, Musicophilia, and in the November O magazine.

Longterm care facilities know this and use "music therapy." But it struck me that home caregivers or family members might not realize this remarkably effective tool that's right under their noses – or rather, ears.

Some ideas to try:

  1. Heyday favorites. Unsure what the person has long liked (jazz, big band, classical)? Google "music era" with the decades during which the person was a teenager or in his or her 20s (1920s, 1940s, and so on).
  2. Christmas carols. 'Tis the season (so stores already tell us). Start with classics: Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Elvis, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.
  3. Nursery rhymes. When I was a brand-new mother, I didn't know any proper lullabies. So after I sang all the carols and Beatles songs I could think of, I went through Mother Goose. You'd be surprised how sing-songy and satisfying rhymes like "Jack and Jill" and "Hey Diddle Diddle" can be.
  4. Hymns. Ask to borrow a hymnal from a place of worship to help you sing or play familiar standards on the piano.
  5. Funny songs. Add the benefits of laughter with corny tunes like Tiny Tim's "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" or my dad's old favorites, "Mares Eat Oats" and "Hello Mudda, Hello Fadda" (by Allan Sherman).
  6. Musicals. Listen to a soundtrack, or rent the movie version. Turn it up when Julie Andrews croons "My Favorite Things."
  7. TV-show theme songs. Google those words and you'll find many CDs. After all, tunes like Archie and Edith Bunker's "Those Were the Days" duet were the soundtrack for many an evening.
  8. TV shows about music. One of my Dad's favorites is "Don't Forget the Lyrics" (Fox). There's also "American Idol."
  9. Wandering minstrels. Sounds farfetched but it's fabulous if your area happens to have a wonderful program like "Music for Seniors," which musician and caregiver Sarah Martin McConnell founded in Nashville to bring area performers to seniors in care locations, day centers, and at home. (She says it's the only such program she knows of, but she'd love to see it nationwide. As for me, I love it!)
  10. Musical instruments. If the person played one, he possibly still can. Alternatives: plucking a child's zither or working a tambourine or xylophone.
  11. Don't forget to sing, use hand motions like clapping, and dance. People with Parkinson's disease especially benefit from dancing.

What am I leaving out? Please share what's worked for you!

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7 Comments So Far. Add Your Wisdom.

about 1 year ago

My wife likes Western music. Most days she walks up and down in the house (1 level), 30 or 40 minutes and caries her radio and listens to Western music. Then about 4PM each day, she goes back to our bedroom, sits in a comfortable chair and listens to some more Western music. This seems to be helpful in keeping her happy. And it also gives me a break.

over 1 year ago

Add Jim Brickman to the list. He's a pianist who plays wonderful soothing and happy songs. It helps my husband as well as me. We listen to him every night on my ipad during dinner.

over 1 year ago

though i had help, i was --by and large-- the sole caregiver round the clock to my mother who suffered dementia . i had to find means of entertaining her and so tried playing old hindi film songs and also devotional songs to her.she was not in the least religious but she loved them i guess because the melodies are enchanting. i also repeatedly recounted several times the incidents of her childhood as she had told me but with a lot more of gestures and animation; she loved these especially when i made her seem the heroine of the story; she smiled or chuckled as much --perhaps-- as her motor responses allowed. she even enjoyed the nursery rhymes she had taught me when i was a child and so when i said "ding-dong..." she would emphatically add 'BELL' and so on till the end of the rhymes, but she couldn't recite them on her own. however she could, i feel, pick out my deliberately introduced mistakes for she looked at me puzzled/irritated when i made mistakes. we once took her on a drive and i pointed out a cardiac hospital and told her "mom, that's the new asian heart hospital". reading the nameplate she corrected me saying, "NO, it's asian heart INSTITUTE, not hospital". maybe her training as teacher had kicked in. she died in january after seven and half years after being diagnosed and six-and half years in bed. i had all the time thought that i would be relieved when she is gone. i now think the relief is hers not mine. i still miss her very much.

almost 6 years ago

Great ideas and thanks to the music therapists for sharing those ideas. The point about participating in the music is really useful and you're right about it being so individual. I'm interested in learning more about the idea of composing with a music therapist --

Anonymous said almost 6 years ago

I am a music therapist and would just like to add a couple thoughts to your outline. Music is processed in many parts of the brain including the brainstem. When AD begins to ravage parts of the frontal lobes, music, especially music in the older memory can be accessed from these other parts of the brain. This is especially true if the person is participating (playing, singing, moving..)in the music. Patient-preferred music usually comes from periods when the person was in their teens or 20's, but this is only a start. I find their preferences to be quite individual when it comes to music therapy. While music can be an excellent motivator for physical therapy, breathing treatments, etc.. great care should be taken to tempo and key in its use. Composing songs with a music therapist has allowed families to lovingly say final goodbyes. There is so much more I could write. I truly appreciate your posting the value of music in the lives of older people. I continue to work in a geriatric facility as well as with children with autism and developmental disabilities, and adults with profound mental health disgnoses. Thank you for posting your article in this forum. Sincerely, Susan Petura, MT-BC

Anonymous said almost 6 years ago

We recently discovered that my Dad enjoys listening to older country songs, this can soothe him and keep him sitting for some time.

almost 6 years ago

I worked as a music therapist in adult day care centers and nursing homes and with children, as well as intergenerational programming. Not only did have many experiences with clients with Alzheimer’s in my work with music, I had personal experiences with my grandmother who had Alzheimer’s as well. She could sing hymns with me and get many words in long after she stopped being able to talk coherently. And there came a time when she couldn't sing the words anymore, but she could hum or sing the melody. The melody is the last thing to go. One day I fixed my grandparent’s old Victrola and played the old 78’s and she loved it, as did my Granddaddy CV. I have pictures and audiotape of that which I cherish! I wrote about my grandparents in my column on storytelling on the AARP site - http://www.aarp.org/family/articles/goyer_family_storytelling.html Music made a huge difference in their lives.

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