The Healing Power of Music — “Alive Inside”

Music has power—especially for individuals with dementia. When used appropriately, it can help shift mood, manage stress, reduce agitation, stimulate positive interactions, and can even triumph where prescription medication falls short. Even in the late stages of dementia, the healing power of music has been known to spark compelling outcomes.

How do we know this? Besides lots of documented research, we can see for ourselves in “Alive Inside,” a documentary that chronicles the astonishing experiences of people around the country with dementia who have been revitalized by listening to music. The film follows a social worker named Dan Cohen, who is campaigning to bring iPods to nursing homes. What Mr. Cohen discovers by accident, and scientists have been studying for years, is that a person suffering from memory loss can seem to “awaken” when given music that they have an emotional attachment to. As Neuropsychologist Oliver Sacks explains in the film, “Music imprints itself on the brain deeper than any other human experience. Music evokes emotion and emotion can bring with it memory.”

In the film, the effect of music on the patient, the family, and the caregiver is both touching and inspiring. Music seems to open doors and make connections, especially for those with the least ability to interact. For example, in the film, Henry, a nursing home patient with Alzheimers, who normally assumes a vegetative state, “comes alive” when listening to his favorite songs. The film hopes to encourage widespread adoption of personalized music programs in nursing homes across the country, since “the reward is enormous and the cost is low.”

In an interview about the film, Michael Rossato-Bennett, the producer and director, said “[t]he saddest thing in the world is a person who’s spark has gone out and the most beautiful thing in the world is another human being awakened. It is my hope that when it is done, this film awakens people’s hearts and helps make it possible to bring music to those in nursing homes, people who don’t even know how deeply they need music’s gifts.”

In a recent Washington Post article about Alzheimer’s and the arts, Kathryn Dodd, a resident in a Manassas nursing home’s experience concurs with the film’s findings. To Dodd, listening to tunes by James Taylor and Mary J. Blige allows her mind to wander to pleasant memories from years ago. According to Dodd, “music brings memories. I basically try to remember the good times — I don’t like to dwell on the bad times — and music brings those out,” Dodd said. “I got a lot out of it.”

How is music so powerful?

  • Reawakens memories and emotions: Most people associate music with important events and a wide array of emotions. The connection can be so strong that hearing a tune long after the occurrence evokes a memory of it. Selections from the individual’s young adult years—ages 18 to 25—are most likely to have the strongest responses and the most potential for engagement.
  • Stimulates and promotes movement: Stimulative music, with percussive sounds and fairly quick tempos, tends to naturally promote movement, such as toe taps. This type of music can assist with activities of daily living: for example, at mealtime to rouse individuals who tend to fall asleep at the table or during bathing to facilitate movement from one room to another.
  • Calms and sedates: Sedative music, including ballads and lullabies with unaccented beats, no syncopation, slow tempos, and little percussive sound, can be the best choice when preparing for bed or any change in routine that might cause agitation.
  • Lessens frustration and agitation: Non-verbal individuals in late dementia who become agitated out of frustration and sensory overload can become engaged in music. Singing, rhythm playing, dancing, physical exercise, and other structured music activities can diffuse this behavior and redirect their attention.
  • Promotes emotional closeness: As dementia progresses, individuals typically lose the ability to share thoughts and gestures of affection with their loved ones. However, they retain their ability to move with the beat until very late in the disease process.

How can you use music with your loved ones who have dementia?

Early stage:

  • Dance in the house.
  • Listen to music that the person liked in the past. If they say it sounds horrible, turn it off.
  • Encourage an individual who played an instrument to try it again.
  • Compile a musical history of favorite recordings, which can be used to help in reminiscence and memory recall.

Early and middle stages:

  • Use song sheets or a karaoke player so the individual can sing along with old-time favorites.

Middle stage:

  • Play music or sing as the individual is walking to improve balance.
  • Use background music to enhance mood.
  • Opt for relaxing music—a familiar, non-rhythmic song—to reduce sundowning, or behavior challenges at nighttime.

Late stage:

  • Go back to the music collection of old favorites that you made earlier.
  • Sing-along with the person to “When the Saints Go Marching In” or other tunes sung by rote in that person’s generation.
  • Play soothing music to provide feelings of comfort.
  • Exercise to music.
  • Do drumming or other rhythm-based activities.
  • Use facial expressions to communicate feelings when involved in these activities.

Many researchers agree evidence seems promising that music can improve cognitive function and memory, bolster a person’s mood and sense of well-being, and reduce stress, agitation, and aggression. We hope these ideas will be helpful for you, in interacting with your loved one with dementia.

Dementia Planning

Nearly six million people in the U.S. are struggling with dementia and memory loss and 10 million more people are connected to them. There is no known cure and the numbers of sufferers is on the rise. At the Farr Law Firm, we are encouraged by how music is enhancing the quality of life for dementia patients. Do you have a loved one who is suffering from dementia? Persons with dementia and their families face special legal and financial needs. At the Farr Law Firm, we are dedicated to easing the financial and emotional burden on those suffering from dementia and their loved ones. If you have a loved one who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, we can help you prepare for your future financial and long-term care needs. We help protect the family’s hard-earned assets while maintaining your loved one’s comfort, dignity, and quality of life by ensuring eligibility for critical government benefits. Call us today at 703-691-1888 in Fairfax, 540-479-1435 in Fredericksburg, 301-519-8041 in Rockville, MD, or 202-587-2797 in Washington, DC to make an appointment for a consultation.

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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