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changing a record on a record player

Yesterday, I borrowed a dear friend's car. In it, I found a CD we use to listen to all the time in grad school. Almost immediately, tears came to my eyes as a montage of moments filled my mind. This is the power of music. To transport us back to another part of our story, to connect us, to make us feel seen and understood. “One does not have to be especially musical to respond to music, to recognize music, or to react to music emotionally,” shares the late neuroscience legend Dr. Oliver Sacks. “Virtually everyone does, and they will continue to do so with dementia.”

Your Brain on Music

What is happening in between our ears that elicits this universal and emotional response to music? Neuroimaging continues to improve and research on living with dementia is gaining traction. A picture of what is happening is beginning to emerge. "What seems to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head," explains Petr Janata of UC Davis' Center for Mind and Brain. This phenomenon lasts through the journey of dementia. The part of the brain activated by music is the medial prefrontal cortex. This is often one of the last parts of the brain to be changed by dementia. Janata has seen music open new pathways to memories thought lost. “The parts of the brain which respond to music are very close to the parts of the brain concerned with memory, emotion, and mood. So familiar songs will bring back memories. All that has been lost in amnesia will come back, as if it were embedded in a familiar song," explains Sacks.

violin and music sheets

The Role of Music in Dementia Care

“What I would hate to see is people getting an iPod and headphones put on their heads and being left in a corner of their room all day, thinking it’s going to improve their lives,” explains dementia inclusivity crusader and geriatrician, Al Power. “If the use of personalized music improves people’s memory retrieval and their ability to communicate and engage, this is a magic moment that should not be ignored. Use these periods of heightened ability to converse, find out more about the person, understand his or her needs, and cultivate your relationship. Once music opens that door to improved engagement, you have to use it!”

Dr. Power’s observations back up my own experience on the ChangingAging tour. This tour uses medical science, storytelling and live music to change the way people view aging. On the tour, I spoke with family and professional care partners around the country. I heard frustration from and about those who used an iPod like a pill, popping in headphones and walking away. I also heard stories of transformation when music was used to help build connections. You do not need any fancy training. We have all listened to music and connected with fellow listeners throughout our lives. Follow your heart. If you want some inspiration check out organizations such as:

  • SingFit. They provide everything needed to offer therapeutic group or individual musical experiences.

  • ALMA (Addressing, Loneliness with Movement and Art). They connect at-risk youths with elders in long-term care through music, movement and art. The benefits are multifold for all involved. To raise awareness and funds ALMA hosts silent discos.

  • Eversound. They create universally designed silent disco headsets. These unleash your creativity of how you want to interact with music in your community. The headsets give each person the power to choose the volume of their music. They can bring inclusion to those who would not otherwise participate.

  • Music and Memory. They are the pioneers of training people how to best use the power of music to connect with each other.

Anecdotally, the positive effects of music are endless. Stories of improved mood, reduced anxiety, subsequent medication reduction and deep connections abound. Formal research is now starting to catch up. So far, the results have not been to the statistical significance expected. “In our long-term care system, which still remains stubbornly task-focused, there is too often a tendency to grab onto Music and Memory as an “intervention” (a) without adequate attention to the larger framework of care, and (b) without taking advantage of the benefits that this increased engagement creates," explains Power. The takeaway? Music is amazingly powerful but only with human connection and a nurturing supportive environment.

5 Tips for Connecting with Your Loved One with Dementia Through Music

There is no magical playlist for people with dementia. The beautiful effects of music are felt by all of us, though often there are more pronounced effects for people living with dementia. This is because, as the late Alzheimer’s self-advocate Richard Taylor would say, “we are not provided with meaningful opportunities that allow us to continue to experience joy, purpose, and engagement in life.” The best music for your loved one living with dementia is the music that helps you connect with them. What follows are tips for beginning the search for music that connects to the heart of any person.

  1. Ask “What are some of your favorite songs?” or “What song would you love to hear right now?” Thanks to music streaming services, most songs are available at the click of a button.
  2. Create playlists for different moods or life stages. Music can calm, energize, help us grieve, and more. Be mindful about what music you play when.
  3. If verbal communication is limited, use trial and error. When a song clicks with the individual, add it to the playlist.
  4. A good place to start is with songs from when the person the playlist is for was between 18 – 25 years old. Depending on what years were most transformative for them, move forward and backward within the timeframe or decade you're exploring.
  5. Find songs in your loved one’s native language and recordings by the original artist. Try finding live recordings of a concert you know they went to and was important to them.

people dancing

Dance Like You Have Dementia

“When we are little children and we hear music, we run towards it to dance and our Mama says, ‘no you cannot go over there and dance, sit down and listen.’ The problem with this is we have to wait until we are drunk to dance again,” jokes humanitarian and musician Samite Mulando during the theater show Disrupt Dementia. Samite then encourages the audience to dance. To drop inhibitions, Mulando tells them to let their bodies feel and move to the music like when they were little kids. Dementia too can offer us a break from our inner critics. It can offer us the freedom to feel and express ourselves without inhibitions. I call myself a crone in-training because I believe we are all meant to mature past adulthood. We had to cultivate skills and our way of being to become the adult we wanted to be. We must do the same to become the elder we want to be. No matter your age or cognitive ability, I encourage you to let yourself feel and be moved by music. If your adult inhibitions are getting in the way, enlist a person living with dementia to show you how. Some of my favorite dance parties have been impromptu on a memory care floor.


Keeping Music and Memory in Context

The Healing Power of Music

Individualized Music Program is Associated with Improved Outcomes for U.S. Nursing Home Residents with Dementia

Alzheimer's & The Power of Music

Why Do the Songs from Your Past Evoke Such Vivid Memories?

Study Finds Brain Hub That Links Music, Memory and Emotion

How Music Could Revolutionise Dementia Care


Music and Memory


Changing Aging

About the Author(s)

Kyrié is a radically age and dementia positive coach and thinker. Her passion for story led her to a career in film, studies in Depth Psychology, and ultimately her work with aging. Kyrié calls herself a crone in-training because she believes our world needs elders and we need to train to become them. She is a book author and blog contributor for multiple platforms.

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