The website Pandora.com will tailor a radio station to match your musical taste when you select an artist, song or genre. And Musicandmemory.org offers a free guide to creating a personalized playlist. (Find music collections we’ve put together from the website Spotify to help you with caregiving.)
Use music to alter moods
Diagnosed with Parkinson’s, Domenic Trifone, 59, of Newington, Conn., has difficulty walking and doing things on his own, which leaves the retired postal worker depressed. But when his wife, Susan, 56, plays Gregorian chants or opera, he is soothed. When she plays his favorite Billy Joel or Jim Croce songs, she’ll often dance, pulling him up to join her.
Donna Poulos has seen the effect music has on her 90-year-old mother, Grace Long. “When I’d leave her house, my mother would be sad, but if I put on classical or opera, she wouldn’t miss me. Instead, she’d wave good-bye, close her eyes and be transported by the music,” says Poulos, a grade school music teacher from Los Altos, Calif. When Poulos is driving with her mother, Long sways to the music and taps her toes, or they sing old tunes such as “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ ” and “This Land Is Your Land.”
“I really think music is one of the things that has kept her alive and happy,” says Poulos.
Gear music to activities
You can use music to get loved ones through transitions, whether it’s moving from one room to another or on to a different task, says Alicia Clair, professor of music therapy at the University of Kansas. Play peaceful music when Mom is waking up. Pick up the pace with active, upbeat songs when getting her dressed for the day.
“One of the best ways to get directions across is to sing, rather than speak, them,” says Clair, who for 20 years has used music therapy for people with dementia. “Never use loud, frenetic music,” she warns. Need to coax a loved one into the shower? Put on Duke Ellington and dance together into the bathroom.
Make music together
Sitting together and listening to music can be bonding. Taking care of someone who can’t communicate can make a caregiver feel lonely and unable to relate, but music can provide a way to connect that is profoundly meaningful.
A pilot study by New York University Langone Medical Center’s Comprehensive Center on Brain Aging found that members of the Unforgettables, a New York City chorus made up of those with early to mid-stage Alzheimer’s and their caregiving spouses and children, reported more self-esteem, better moods, less depression and a greater quality of life after 13 rehearsals and one concert.
Joe Fabiano, 65, has been bringing his wife, Anita, 65, to the two-hour weekly rehearsals since the chorus was formed two years ago. “This is something we can share,” says Joe. “It makes me think of the old days, when we were happy.” Says Anita: “It’s good for my husband and helps me a lot. I like the camaraderie.”
That camaraderie can also ward off the loneliness that often accompanies caring for those with dementia. Husbands, wives and partners appreciate being with others who are dealing with the condition. “Having a place where there are people who can be together in a supportive, caring group is wonderful,” says Josephine Gruder. She brings her husband, Herman, 85, a former longshoreman.
Social worker Suzie Engel, 66, sang in the chorus with her mother, Norma, who died in January 2012. Engel still attends. “This group is like family,” she says.
The Unforgettables’ co-conductors, Dale Lamb and Tania Papayannopoulou, a music therapist from the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function and a pianist/singer, teach the group breathing, vocalizing, musical memory exercises and movement—good stress relievers as well as mental and physical exercise for all.
Not a singer? Consider rhythm. Drumming with others later in life is also a growing trend, according to Encinitas, Calif., music therapist and author Christine Stevens, who teaches health care professionals and family caregivers about percussion. “You don’t have to be musical whatsoever,” says Stevens. In her hospital room, former Rep. Giffords participated in a drum circle with her family and friends. Remo, a drum manufacturer, offers a “health rhythms” section on their website that discusses the health benefits of drumming and how to find a drumming group.
Tune in to your own needs
Music can be a great source of relief and pleasure. When her husband is at adult day care, during other times of the day, or before bed, Susan Trifone will turn on the tunes. “My body gets in rhythm to the beat and it makes me feel much better. But even more, music helps me get away from my everyday problems.”
There’s a (Music) App for That