Music Lights the Corners of Our Minds

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Have you ever been driving in your car and the radio begins to play an old song — somehow you not only remember all the words, it brings back great memories.  KC and the Sunshine Band does it for me every time.

The reason is quite simple. We are hard-wired to remember music. It imprints itself on the brain deeper than any other human experience and when it does it arouses emotion and memory.

The impact is profound especially for those suffering from Alzheimer’s and other dementia!  I see it all the time with my clients.

Music makes connections.

Phil would just sit at the dining room table with his head down. Poor guy, sometimes he would pick his head up but really he showed very little movement and zero conversation.

I carry a lot of music on my phone and happened to have Glenn Miller’s “String of Pearls” so I began to play it.

I kid you not: his foot started to tap under the table, his leg started to move very slowly with the music and then his head began to bop a little bit.  It was amazing.

His daughter, who cares for him 24/7, witnessed the transformation.  She was so overcome that she just broke down, balling her eyes out at seeing her father’s connection.

Music is so powerful but most families just don’t realize how much.  Yet we all move and groove when we hear music. It makes us feel good. Songs and music bring back memories.

Even in late stage Alzheimer’s a loved one can respond to music

I have a client-couple who live in a community.  Karl has advanced Alzheimer’s.  He’s in a wheelchair and really cannot converse. His language is scrambled. It’s all lettuce for him.

To better acquaint me with his parents, the son forwarded a very touching video of the couple spanning their entire lifetimes – even before they were married.    Through the video, I learned that Karl had been a trumpet player.  So when I made my first visit to him, I played trumpet soloists from my phone– Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, etc.

As he heard it, it was clear that the music was very important in his life. He started to mimic playing – as if he was holding the trumpet in his hands, he was fingering the imaginary valves.

He resonated with the music — something was happening in his memory to bring out that reaction and that connection.

We videotaped the session and sent it to the family so they could see his reaction. The family was blown away.  In the five years he had been in the community, they had never seen their Dad have such a profound response…. to anything.

Consequently, I suggested to the family that we get a toy trumpet – just so he could hold it. Whether he tries to play it or not isn’t really the point – it’s the connection he has with it and that’s what counts.

Music lights the corners of our minds and moves memory.

It has impact and influence, and studies back it up. Research is demonstrating that our music memory is stored in the area of the brain not subject to the same level of deterioration as other parts of the brain even for those suffering from Alzheimer’s and other dementia. Similar to my experience with clients, the studies show that music supports calmer more social environments, improved cognitive abilities and greater engagement with music’s power of connection.

Linda Maguire, an opera singer turned neuroscientist, shows the influence of music at a physiological level in that musical rhythm hits us viscerally helping to slow heart rate and in turn lower blood pressure resulting in a calmer state.

Music & Memory, a nonprofit based in New York created an IPod personal playlists program and works to donate IPods to care facilities across the country.  They’ve seen tremendous benefits for Alzheimer’s patients noting participants feeling happier and more socially engaged when routinely exposed to music.

Family caregivers face a variety of challenges and need ways to make the journey less stressful and opportunities to make more meaningful connections.

There are several ways music can be used with a loved one with Alzheimer’s

First of all, if you are just starting out, you don’t want music to be blaring or so loud that it’s agitating.  I suggest getting the soft-padded headphones because they’re more comfortable than the standard ear buds.

Second, download the songs or music that your parent or loved one resonates with most – choose popular recordings from back in their day.  Maybe it’s the songs reminiscent of when you and your loved one first met or your parents began courting or were played at the wedding.

Consider what your loved one did when they were younger — Did they play an instrument, were they involved in a choir, did they love to dance?  These early activities can help unlock the power of music.

Finally, experiment with music and be attentive to any mood or behavioral changes in your loved one. Some individuals with dementia may not like certain melodies.  But don’t give up, there’s likely a tune that will be familiar and fun.

Music matters— to your loved one, to you, and your family. It allows a greater connection, relief, and a sense of something working which can be a welcomed relief in the craziness of the disease called Alzheimer’s.

Let me know if music is impacting your loved one.  I’d love to hear your story.

*Client names were changed to protect anonymity


Lauren SpiglHeadShot1anin is 
CEO of Family Connect Care and a leading authority in care management, specializing in helping people challenged by Alzheimer’s and dementia. She has been providing caregivers with peace of mind and advocacy for their loved ones since 2008 and speaks widely to caregivers offering solutions to mitigate burnout. She is a certified Gerontologist and member of the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers, a designated Alzheimer’s Association Educator and holds certifications in Wound Management, Facilitation, Mediation, Validation Therapy and Residential Care Facilities for the Elderly.  She also holds a Bachelors’ degree in Public Administration from the University of La Verne.


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