The Whitworths of Arizona, bringing science to you in everyday language.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Music, The Great Motivator

Most of us have seen Henry on youtube. He’s this elderly gentleman who can’t lift his head or remember anything until a nurse puts headphones connected to an iPod over his ears. Henry “wakes up” and begins moving and singing with the music. Even after the music is over, he can talk clearly and intelligently about things in his past. He says music gives him the feeling of love and romance, that it makes him feel holy.

Henry’s awakening was a part of a project that provides iPods to people in nursing homes and information to all of us about how helpful music is with people whose dementia has isolated them inside their heads. The documentary this group did is worth watching. You can learn more about Alive Inside and see Henry in the trailer here, The full-length documentary is on Netflix.

Most caregivers are well aware that as thinking abilities fail, emotions remain. Music serves as a connection between emotions and memories and enhanced thinking until very late in the dementia journey. Personalized music can be more effective than any medication in helping a person reconnect with their vital essence—to come alive. Yet it is extremely inexpensive and easy to use.

Our May 2, 2013, blog goes into detail about how music wakes up memories and increases alertness. It offers several suggestions about how to add music to your loved one’s routine. Here are some ways that music can increase awareness and quality of life (
  • Pairing music with everyday activities helps people develop a rhythm that aids in the recall of the memory of this activity, improving cognitive ability over time.
  • Singing sessions engage more than just the left, more creative, side of the brain. Listening to the music activates the right, more logical, side of the brain as well, so that thinking abilities improve—for a while at least.
  • The rhythms of music can improve physical abilities and increase energy. People who can barely move become able to dance and move to the rhythm of the music. Depression often decreases and motivation increases.
  • Being able to sing and/or dance with loved ones adds a closeness that is often lacking as dementia takes away the ability to share emotions. Dancing can lead to hugs and kisses and even more memories as well as feelings of security.
  • Music can shift mood, manage stress and stimulate positive interactions because it requires little or no thinking, it doesn’t need cognitive functioning. It can calm or energize, depending on the song.

The first step for introducing music into your loved one’s life is to develop a playlist of favorite songs. Here are some suggestions:
  • Start with music from your loved one’s teenage years, through about age 25.
  • Choose the type of songs that have most importance to your loved one. For example, if church was an important part of life, add some hymns to the mix. Was opera important or not? Westerns? Mix in some instrumentals but make sure many of the songs have words.
  • Make sure the mix includes a variety of stimulating, laidback, romantic, sad and happy music. Both may trigger emotional connections.
  • Include are some “sing along” classics, that your loved one can join in with.
  • Put the music in an iPod or mp3 player with earphones. The big over the ear type of earphones is easier for the person with dementia to use than ear plugs. Use the wired type; Bluetooth connections might be too difficult to maintain. A simple music player that turns on and off with one switch is also an option for someone living at home or in their own room, where invading other people's hearing space isn't an issue.

Then the fun begins. Your loved one may respond positively soon after you put the earphones on, but if that doesn’t happen, don’t give up. It can take several sessions before a visible reaction occurs.

For more information about Lewy body disorders read our books:
A Caregivers’ Guide to Lewy Body Dementia
Managing Cognitive Issues in Parkinson’s and Other Lewy Body Disorders

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