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Reaching People with Alzheimer's Through Music
By Barbara Jacobs, M.S.
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Dr. Oliver Sacks, Professor of Clinical Neurology and Psychiatry at Columbia University, in his current bestselling book, Musicophilia, writes about the amazing therapeutic effects of music on people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. He states, “Music is no luxury to them but a necessity, and can have power beyond anything to restore them to themselves and to others at least for a while.” In this eye-opening book, he devotes a chapter to this subject entitled, “Music and Identity: Dementia and Music Therapy.” For this population, Dr. Sacks describes how familiar music is the key to eliciting emotions and unlocking words that have been silent.

Researchers have discovered that the teen years around the age of 14 are when musical preferences and memories are formed.Daniel Levitin in his book This is Your Brain on Music states, “We tend to remember things that have an emotional component because our [brain] and neurotransmitters act in concert to tag as important the memories of these emotionally charged years of self-discovery.”Therefore, people with Alzheimer’s disease can often sing the songs they heard during their teen years, even when they can no longer remember the names of their children. This behavior is also well documented in people with advanced dementia.

Throughout my 12-year career as a therapeutic musician in nursing homes, I have witnessed the beneficial power of music for those with Alzheimer’s disease. People in my classes who are virtually speechless and confused begin to sing, hum and sometimes dance once they are stimulated by music. The benefits of music and singing, such as mood improvement and calmer behavior, often persist for hours after the music has stopped. Joining your loved one in a musical activity can bring you both a sense of joy and well-being.

During a recent music class in an Alzheimer’s community…

…I had a thrilling interaction with Lou, a resident with moderate Alzheimer’s including aphasia (loss of speech). I was playing a Judy Garland album, intending to reminisce with the residents before I played their favorite “oldies” on the piano for our sing-along. I randomly went into the audience and chose Lou to dance with me while Judy Garland was singing “Somewhere, Over the Rainbow.” He joined me willingly, and before long held me in an appropriate dance position, stared into my eyes and clearly said the last few words of the song,” Why, oh why, can’t I?”

I was thrilled, but somewhat baffled when I saw staff running to get their cameras, because I knew nothing about him. The staff later told me that this was the first time they had seen Lou speak and show any semblance of his former self. Apparently, he had been a great dancer and music lover in his pre-Alzheimer’s disease life.

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