By Christy Feuerstahler, CDP, Music Coordinator, Valley VNA Senior Care

For people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, music therapy is powerful because a person’s rhythmic response is tied to the motor center of the brain that requires little or no cognition or mental processing. Human response to music, particularly drumming or singing, is essentially primitive. People with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia who engage in music therapy often respond positively, even in the late stages of disease. I’ve been playing and teaching music most of my life, and now bring music’s therapeutic benefits to older adults and caregivers.

I’ve heard nothing but joy and appreciation from participants in the Lyrics & Laughter community programming at Valley VNA. It is an offshoot of a program from the U.K. called Singing for the Brain, a weekly music program for people with dementia and their caregivers that goes beyond passive listening by incorporating singing, instruments, and action. We gather in a circle, and that cue helps focus our participants, followed by a session of warm-ups, hello songs, rounds, rhythms, and thematic tunes on topics like the Old West, patriotism, and Irish folk tunes. Caregivers enjoy sharing in the songs, too, because it’s a wonderful way to bond with one another.

An iPod listening program is another great idea for older adults whose families can help develop playlists of favorite songs. The personalized collection helps those in need of sensory stimulation, and earphone splitters can allow an older adult and family member to experience music together. I’ve seen people hold hands, dance, smile, and sing or simply get a sparkle in their eyes when the music starts.

Songs from a person’s young adult years, from about age 18 to 25, are the most likely to elicit engagement, such as dancing, toe tapping, and happy facial expressions. People with late-stage dementia often respond to childhood folk songs, especially when sung in the language in which they were learned. I was once sitting with an otherwise nonverbal resident who began speaking to me once she heard her songs, even complimenting me on my blouse. Music can help elicit speech in people with advanced dementia, if even for a short time.

 Facilitated drum circles brighten moods, encourage social interaction, and allow the release of pent-up emotions. People who typically sit with their heads down may perk up and move their eyes around when group drumming starts. Drum circles are very good for those who can tolerate the loud drumming because it taps into their rhythmic instinct. It’s also an affordable participatory program because drums can be handmade with simple wooden frames and duct tape, and sticks can be used for mallets.

Everyone deserves music in their lives, and for those with Alzheimer’s or dementia, it can be a portal to past feelings of happiness and contentment, and build connections with people in their current social circle. It might even help them express themselves with words and smiles, which puts a song in anyone’s heart.