It’s amazing to see how making and playing music helps both those with Alzheimer’s and their family caregivers. For a story I wrote, I interviewed Gabby Giffords’s music therapist. I also watched a chorus in New York made up of dementia patients and their partners, spouses and kids. A moment of normalcy and pleasure–together–in otherwise very difficult lives.
Here’s a piece I wrote for AARP aptly named “The Power of Music”:
Geriatrician Theresa Allison can’t talk with her grandmother. Alzheimer’s disease has left her without the ability to see, converse or recognize her granddaughter. Yet the two are able to interact. Instead of talking, they sing. “I’ve watched her babble nonsense, but then bounce my son on her knee as we sing a folk song she taught me as a child. For 45 seconds, life is completely normal,” says Allison. “Engaging this way is profoundly meaningful.”
Allison, a musicologist as well as physician and assistant professor in the Division of Geriatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, sometimes sings songs with her frightened or confused patients to get them to relax during a physical exam. And she encourages generous doses of music in caregiving, whether the loved one is cognitively intact or has memory loss.
The healing power of music was recognized in ancient Greece; Aristotle and Plato wrote about it. And though the field of music therapy formally debuted in 1950, but has only recently gained many fans, including hospitals, adult day care and senior centers, and nursing homes. Health care professionals often refer patients to music therapists — the country has more than 6,000 music therapists nationally certified through the American Music Therapy Association and they can help you find one in your area. Health workers are also using music to treat a long list of conditions: depression, Tourette’s syndrome, Huntington’s disease, autism, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, brain injury and cardiac disease. It can be part of pain management and cancer treatments.
Lately, researchers have focused on how music can benefit those with Alzheimer’s. Anecdotal evidence shows that music can tap memories and reduce anxiety, pain, heart rate and blood pressure. It can help accelerate healing, boost learning, improve neurological disorders and increase social interaction.
Sophisticated imaging techniques such as PET scans and MRIs are beginning to reveal the full picture. “Neuroscientists who have wondered how someone with a stroke or brain injury can recover speech by singing, or why a person with Parkinson’s can walk or dance to music but not without it, have now acquired the technology to see, in real time, how music stimulates and activates networks in the brain,” says Connie Tomaino, executive director of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function in New York. The research is still in its infancy, she says, but it suggests that music may improve specific function such as speech and movement.
If you’re a caregiver, music can also help you with daily caregiving routine. Music therapists offer these suggestions:
Select familiar songs
Most people remember music from childhood or when they were in their 20s. Does Mom love opera or show tunes? What songs make her dance?
After former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in January 2011 and suffered brain damage, she was unable to speak. But her mother knew her favorite songs — ”American Pie,” ”Brown Eyed Girl,” “Over the Rainbow” — and along with Giffords’ dad, husband and music therapist, surrounded her with the music she loved.
“Gabby could sing several words in a phrase, but couldn’t put a three-word sentence together on her own,” says her music therapist, Maegan Morrow, of TIRR Memorial Hermann hospital in Houston. Morrow had her sing her needs, such as “I want to go to bed” or “I’m tired.” Help your loved one recall words by singing part of a familiar song and having her finish the line with you, or alone.
Choose your music source
Pick what works best for you: a CD player, an MP3 player or iPod, a tablet like an iPad or a Kindle, or a time-tested turntable and vinyl collection. No music of your own? Local libraries often have good CD selections.
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
If you can’t join a music group, you can mimic what they do with applications for your smartphone or tablet.
SingFit: Designed by a music therapist, this app is like a portable karaoke machine that helps participants sing along by providing lyric prompts, adjustable music volume and keys, and voice playback. Available for Apple products.
Magic Piano: Tap the dots on the screen and it plays songs at varying speeds. For both Android and Apple products.
Songify: This app turns something you said—a poem, a birthday greeting, a passage from a book—into a song. For both Android and Apple products.