Music wakes up memories and increases alertness, with the effects lasting long after the music is over. It has been used successfully with Parkinson’s to improve motor control, with better results than with physical therapy. Listening to music has helped people who seldom talk to speak up surprising well. Music also fights depression, a common Lewy symptom.
Music, memories and emotion link together in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Because different dementias affect this area differently, responses to music are different too.
Alzheimers: The prefrontal cortex is one of the last areas to atrophy. Thus, music can serve as a connection between emotion and memories until very late in the dementia journey. Even after the ability to communicate is damaged, people with AD can sing, and even play instruments.
Frontotemporal dementia (FTD): This area of the brain is one of the first hit and so music isn’t nearly has helpful for people with FTD. They no longer have emotions with which to connect the music.
Lewy body dementia: PwLBD never completely lose their ability to feel emotions and like PwAD, appear to be able to experience that feelings/past experiences connection that music provides. Caregivers report that their loved ones will perk up and even sing when they hear a familiar song.
While a professional music therapist can be helpful, a lay person—caregiver, or staff—can also provide music therapy. Consistency is the important factor. Make it a regular part of your loved one’s day. As with everything that helps with dementia, the earlier and the more you include music in their daily life, the better it will work. It will not cure, or even stop dementia. But it can improve awareness at the moment and increase ones quality of life.
Have songfests. Sing together, or if necessary sing to your loved one. Be as diligent about this as you are about physical exercise and good nutrition.
Be patient. Don’t expect improvements immediately. It may take several sessions to see changes.
Play familiar music. Chose music that you know your loved one likes best. Chose a variety, with some slow and some fast (but not so fast that it generates agitation).
Do not use a radio or TV to provide the music. This often becomes "white sound" or background noise that agitates rather than calms.
Do use an iPod or MP3 player with earphones and an individualized playlist. This list will differ with each person and may take a little trial and error before you get it right. Start with the most popular songs in the years when your loved one was between the ages of 7 and 19.
Make music a tool to facilitate the proper mood for an activity. Use soft, relaxing music to counter agitation. Use music with a good rhythm for movement.
You can find books of songs familiar to seniors in the activities section of our bookstore.
Bookstore: LBD Book Corner, Activities Section