For the past 20 years I have worked actively with elderly patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias as well. Let me tell you that the treatment and methods have really changed and improved during that time too.
What brought me to this work was actually an assignment from my department chair and mentor, Dr. Joel Elkes. We were a part of an Arts and Medicine program at the University of Louisville School of Medicine and were researching the use of music and other arts interventions with a variety of illnesses and health challenges.
Dr. Elkes decided that he wanted me to do a formal scientific study on the “Therapeutic Use of Music with Alzheimer’s Patients.” We were able to get into a state-of the-art Alzheimer’s unit in Louisville, KY; a facility that was brand new and had a special locked area for Alzheimer’s patients that allowed them to safely wander and pace (as they tend to do) in a garden area outside and in a circular area inside!
Over the course of the next six months we worked with 30 actual subjects, but we also had the participation of family members who were visiting as well as medical and support staff. At the end of the study we had learned that although music certainly will not cure, or even slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, it definitely does provide a wonderful quality of life intervention that allows people to enjoy and remember the music of their “courting years!” Yes, we found that even in the latter stages of Alzheimer’s disease, after patients no long recognize their friends and family members, they can still hear the music from their “courting years” and sing-along, tap their toes, nod their heads in time to the music and sometimes, get up and dance for a minute or so with their spouse. Music is a beautiful way to temporarily “get back” some of the person’s former self…even if just for a few minutes!
So here are seven of my top tips for using music with an Alzheimer’s patient:
1. Determine what decade (approximately) would have been their “courting years.” I usually define this as the time they were 15-25 years old and were dating, falling in love, getting married and so forth.
2. Go to Google or any search engine, or any university music library and find some of the popular music for that particular decade. For example of I Google “top 40 hits of the 1930’s” I get things like “Over the Rainbow,” “Begin the Beguine,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and lots more. I get not only the names, but links to those on iTunes, Rhapsody and other sites. I also have a whole CD of this music on my website.
3. Once you have found the music for your patient or loved one, you play it for them during a quiet time during the early part of the day…before or immediately after lunch are very good times.
4. If possible, play the music for them live on a piano, guitar, autoharp or other such instrument. Live music is always more powerful than recorded. If not possible, a CD or MP3 is also good.
5. Begin to interact with the patient as you listen. sitting across from them, taking their hands, making eye contact and singing along to the music is very beneficial.
6. If possible, get the patient up out of chair or bed and move to the music with them. You don’t have to formally dance, but get them walking or stepping to the rhythms of the music.
7. Finally, repeat these same 5 or 6 familiar songs with them several times a day for at least a week. The next week you can take a different 5 or 6 songs.
You will begin to see the benefits almost immediately. Our study showed that patients who had an individualized 30-minute music session each day:
* were more sociable during the day
* were less combative during the day
*required less sleeping or calming medications
Is it worth the trouble? Absolutely! I have seen Alzheimer’s patients literally “come to life again” during their music session. Give it a try and let me know if I can help you in any way.