How Can Music Help Create Better Caregiver Connections?

There is an incredible vignette from HBO’s 2009 documentary series The Alzheimer’s Project that speaks to how powerful music can be as a communication tool for those living with dementia.

The segment—part of the project’s Memory Loss Tapes—follows Woody, a man living in an assisted living community designed for those suffering from memory impairment. As Woody wanders throughout the community he now calls home, he is friendly to everyone he encounters, but clearly is confused about his surroundings and appears unable to carry on any real conversation. Suddenly his wife and daughter arrive, taking him on a dinnertime excursion outside of building.

Woody and his family arrive at their destination: a gathering of “the Grunyons,” an a cappella group Woody was a member of for decades. Soon, Woody is trotted out onto stage to perform with the group. Despite being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease 14 years prior, he is tasked with a complex solo. In an incredible few moments of clarity, Woody stuns the audience with a near perfect rendition.

While “Woody’s Song” is a dramatic example of how dementia sufferers can retain music and melodies several years after diagnosis, his story illustrates just how powerful a tool music can be for family caregivers searching for ways to better connect with their loved ones.

Just like television shows and movies use music to set the mood for an audience, caregivers can use this powerful tool to connect with loved ones, calm the chaos, and reinforce old routines in new ways.


Soothing music can bring calmness during times of chaos

Several studies have confirmed that music can have a positive effect on the mood of people living with dementia. Increased levels of eye contact, joy, and overall engagement have all been observed after listening to music.

Research has also shown that music can lead to decreased agitation. Caregivers can try playing their loved ones’ favorite music during times of distress as a way to deescalate ongoing tension. If you are caring for someone who often becomes agitated at a certain time of day, try incorporating music listening sessions just prior to those periods of distress. You may be surprised at the results!

To learn more about the connection between music and mood for those living with dementia, check out this great video from Nero News.


Music can evoke pleasant memories

Another positive response to hearing music can be feelings of nostalgia. Ask any recreation specialist working in senior centers, adult day programs, or long-term care, and they will tell you all about certain participants who do not seem to engage in any of the activities they offer. That is until music—perhaps a particular type of music or a certain artist—is introduced. Then, like magic, the person is suddenly engaged in the moment in new and exciting ways.

This phenomenon is not a coincidence as music has long been considered a great unifier. Caregivers at home can utilize music to help reminisce about past memories as a way to offset feelings of loneliness or depression. Music can create context in our minds that spoken word alone cannot. The next time you attempt to look at old pictures or simply discuss pleasant times from years past, put on some familiar music from the era you are discussing. The results may surprise you.


Music can enhance, and even replace established rituals and traditions

Chaplain Chava has been a chaplain at St. John’s Home for over a decade. When she sees the make-up of a particular neighborhood where she provides spiritual services begin to shift, she changes things up. A greater number of residents with progressing levels of dementia in one place usually results in neighborhood services being performed almost entirely through music.

Along similar lines, you may find that your loved one has lost interest in certain events or activities they once found enjoyable. Maybe your loved has lost interest (or the ability) to read books and this was an activity they used to relax before going to sleep for the night. If this is the case, try replacing reading time with time spent listening to soft, soothing music just prior to bedtime. It just might work.


For more helpful caregiver tips, visit the St. John’s Dementia Resource Center.

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