Oct 12, 2016

How to Conduct Music Activities With People Who Have Alzheimer’s

There is substantial research (as well as anecdotal evidence) that supports the notion that these activities using music are beneficial to people living with Alzheimer’s.


Music in Alzheimer's care and dementia care.
By Marie Marley
Alzheimer's Reading Room

Activity can engage persons living with dementia and make them more lively and in touch. Music also reaches those in the latest stages of the disease — even when they no longer talk or recognize loved ones.

The purpose of this article is to provide practical, down-to-earth advice on how you can use activity to engage, comfort, communicate with, and bring joy to your loved one who is either living at home or in a care facility.


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The tips presented are based on my personal experience as a caregiver, articles and books I published, articles and books by other specialists in Alzheimer’s care, and information obtained during interviews with national experts. (See the end of this article for information about the people I interviewed.)

I recommend purchasing a book by Bell and Troxel - The Best Friends Book of Alzheimer’s Activities - which includes step by step instructions for carrying out a total of 147 different activities of various types for people with Alzheimer’s. It’s well worth the purchase price.


General Advice

Let me present a few words of general advice about conducting activities.

1. Select activities the person liked before he or she had Alzheimer’s ( James Ritz – Interview).

2. Be sure the activities are not too hard or too easy (Teepa Snow – Interview).

3. Focus on the process not the quality of the end product, especially in art activities (Daniel Potts – Interview).

4. Activity participate with your loved one in the activity (James Ritz - Interview).

5. If the person appears to be tired or distracted, or appears not to like the activity, stop it (James Ritz – Interview).


Something Meaningful

Tom and Karen Brenner state in their book - You Say Goodbye and We Say Hello: The Montessori Method for Positive Dementia Care - that “One of the most effective techniques we use to prime the pump of memory is also one of the most simple: put something meaningful in a person’s hands.”

This is an excellent piece of advice that can be applied to many activities. For music, that meaningful item could be an instrument the person used to play or rudimentary instruments, such as drums, tambourines, kazoos, etc.


How to Use Music

Here is some simple advice for using music with loved ones with Alzheimer’s.

1. Play music for the person (live or recorded).

2. Arrange for musical experiences in which the person can participate.

3. Be aware of the effect the music is having on the person. Change what you’re playing if the music is having no effect or a negative effect. (James Ritz – interview)

4. Be present and participate in the activity with your loved one. Never use music as a ‘babysitter.’ (James Ritz – interview)


Play Music for the Person

Live music can be provided in several ways. Patients in the early stages of dementia may be taken out to concerts of the type of music they like.

You could also have a musician or very small group of performers come to your home or a long-term care facility to play for your loved one.

Recorded Music. Playing recorded music has the advantage of allowing the person to listen to over and over and at any time of the day rather than just when performers are present.

Some caregivers these days are loading up iPods with the type of music their loved ones cherished the most before they developed Alzheimer’s.

As I discussed in a previous article - iPods a Miracle for People With Alzheimer’s - on this site, this approach is promoted by Dan Cohen. (See his website, Music and Memory.)


Arrange for Musical Experiences in Which the Person Can Participate

Sing-along. For those living at home sing-alongs with family and friends can be arranged. You can also hold sing-alongs with just the caregiver and the person with Alzheimer’s. This could be done with recorded music or live music if you play the piano or guitar, for example.

Performing. People with Alzheimer’s in any setting can be given drums, tambourines or other simple percussion instruments to “play” in addition to, or instead of, singing.

Another approach is to have loved ones who played an instrument before they developed Alzheimer’s play it again. In an interview, Tom and Karen Brenner (authors of ‘You Say Goodbye and We Say Hello: The Montessori Method for Positive Dementia Care’), told me that people who were able to play a musical instrument in their earlier lives can usually still play that instrument when they are living with dementia.

I would add that even if they no longer can play the instrument, they may enjoy just holding it.


What Types of Music to Use. According to Ritz, there are some guidelines for selecting the types of music you can employ. The first is to use music familiar to the person, such as music they liked when they were a teenager (around age 15) or early adult. So you might play Ella Fitzgerald for one patient and Mozart for another.

Also, Ritz says you should play music that is consonant and melodious. If playing classical music, Mozart and Haydn would be good choices. You can purchase CDs of most “golden oldies” from Amazon.

What Types of Music to Avoid. Ritz adds that to avoid making the person agitated or over-stimulated, you should avoid music that is excessively loud or dissonant. I would add to that it’s probably best not to play music that is sad or will remind the person of a sad event, such as the music played at the funeral of a loved one.

One of My Personal Experiences With Music. I described in another article on this site how I had a classical violinist show up in a tux to play a special concert just for my Romanian soulmate in his room in the nursing home. That was a big hit.

Simply put, he was ecstatic! He smiled broadly, moved in time with the music and hummed along to the selections with which he was familiar.

He also held hands and interacted with the violinist between pieces, and was immensely proud that the man came to play just for him!

How to Get Answers To Your Questions About Alzheimer's and Dementia

This is the first of a series of four articles that will explore how to conduct the following activities for people who have Alzheimer’s: 1. Music, 2. Art, 3. Children or infants (and dolls), 4. Pets (and stuffed animals).

Interviews for This Article

1. Teepa Snow, Nationally-recognized dementia expert

2. James Ritz, Freelance musician specialized in performing for people with Alzheimer’s.

3.Tom and Karen Brenner, authors of You Say Goodbye and We Say Hello: The Montessori Method for Positive Dementia Care

4. Daniel C. Potts, MD, FAAN, noted neurologist, author, educator, and champion of those with Alzheimer’s disease and their caregiver. His father, Lester Potts, became an artist of acclaim when he had Alzheimer’s.

Marie Marley is the author of the award-winning  Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer’s and Joy’ , and co-author (with Neurologist Daniel C. Potts, MD, FAAN) of  Finding Joy in Alzheimer’s: New Hope for Caregivers. Her website ComeBackEarlyToday contains a wealth of information for Alzheimer’s caregivers.

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