Music Therapy for Alzheimer's and Dementia

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Music is a fundamental way of communicating with people for whom verbal language has become close to meaningless. I’ve seen this reaction throughout the years but saw it the most in the nursing home where my parents lived.

Fridays at the nursing home were very popular. Regular music groups would come by at the week’s end to play old favorites for the residents, always filling the room with cheer. My dad, who had dementia caused by failed surgery, loved the live music but also responded well to CDs of his favorites from the big band era. I know that his quality of life during his last ten years would have been diminished without music to help override the effects of dementia.

A few months ago at a speaking event I connected with Ann Schluter who has developed a program that uses music therapy for seniors and those with Alzheimer’s disease. Ann earned her BA degree in double bass and cello and her BS degree in music education and string instruments. She’s since completed numerous Suzuki method teacher enrichment courses and workshops for fiddling and Hardanger fiddle, which is a Norwegian folk fiddle.

Although Ann founded a Suzuki School in 1979 and has been deeply involved in this method, she said that she’s more recently followed her other passion by playing fiddle for shut-ins and elders, particularly those with dementia. To further this interest, she developed her Music for Memory program which involves playing music for older individuals (especially those in memory care), and reminiscing with them about earlier times.

Passing on the gift of music

Music for Memory began shortly after Ann’s mother passed away in 2012.

“When my Mom was dying, a hospice music therapist left a Reverie Harp in Mom’s room,” Schluter says. “The instrument is designed so that anyone can play it, so I was able to pick out simple tunes that calmed Mom when she was in pain.”

“Several months after Mom’s death, I received a Reverie Harp as a gift, so I volunteered to play it for a friend’s group at an enhanced assisted living unit, which includes memory care.

“I played for this group once a month. I also played my fiddle, which led to more reminiscing about dancing, such as how they learned, where they danced, their favorite dances and anything else they wanted to discuss.

“Eventually, I began having group sessions in a memory care unit and officially launched my Music for Memory business in March of 2015. At each session, I play a variety of dance tunes on the fiddle, as well as songs and hymns learned in school and church.

“Fortunately, I am old enough to have learned patriotic and folk songs from ‘The Golden Book of Favorite Songs’ while attending a two-room school for grades one through six. This book is familiar to most elders. The songs I play are determined by the season and any holidays we are anticipating or celebrating. These holidays lead us to more reminiscing and more songs. I always include familiar hymns in each session. I don’t need to use word sheets since I’ve learned that people recall most of the words as I play the song. Some groups are able to play ‘Name that Tune,’ while others are not. I simply go with the flow.

“Songbooks from Eldersong Publications Inc. are a favorite resource because the songs have been transposed to lower keys in order to make singing easier for seniors’ voices. I play my octave fiddle, which has special strings tuned eight notes (one octave) lower than the standard violin tuning. The lower pitches are much more pleasing to elders’ ears.

“Frequently family members sit in on my sessions. They appreciate the songs offered and often participate in the singing and reminiscing. I currently have sessions in several memory care facilities and one small assisted living home. My session fee is paid by each facility.”

Performing can be rewarding and woeful

“Seeing looks of recognition and joy as elders remember little things about their lives and share them with the group is wonderful. I love hearing about earlier times in their lives, and they enjoy hearing my memories.

“I prefer having weekly or every-other-week sessions at each facility as it brings more familiarity for everyone involved. The elders almost feel like family to me. After several every-other-week sessions, one woman was amazed that she recognized me. She kept saying, ‘I remember her!’

“The hardest part is when an elder I’ve known for months or years has sudden dementia progression that makes participation in my sessions impossible. I’m learning to grieve a little as I play.

“The most rewarding part of my work to date has been seeing a ‘non-responsive’ elder respond to my playing by folding hands, moving a foot to the beat of a dance tune or making eye contact with me. During one of my first sessions, a woman who could not speak and did not make eye contact held her hands as if in prayer as I played ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus.’ Her hands were only touching during that song. At subsequent sessions she watched me as I played.”

Thank you, Ann, for sharing this moving and enlightening information with us. I agree that so-called non-responsive people will often respond to music. I’ve seen it firsthand.

Anyone with patience and some musical ability should be able to help their own aging loved one with music. If you can’t play or find someone who can, look for recorded music and use an iPod or similar device to produce the music.

As most of us who care for those with cognitive challenges know, seeing any kind of a contented response from a loved one is one of the great gifts of caregiving.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

Minding Our Elders

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10 Comments

I have read about all kinds of different music therapies for dementia/Alzheimer's. There is a documentary that touched me the most though. It is on Netflix and worth watching. Hard at times but amazing. I tried it with my mom. First time I got a reaction. Second time a little less. Might have been the day or who knows. But I will keep trying it. Not a cure, but just a helpful tool to help their minds be calm in a confusing time. If you can please do watch: Alive Inside. Developed by Dan Cohen. He has worked hard and diligently with doctors, politicians and memory care facilities to integrate music into these people's lives. His organization is Aliveinside.org. Again, please watch if you can.
Good for you partsmom. I see the same thing at my mom's facility about how the people love the songs they grew up with. I for one really appreciate the groups that come to entertain for all places. It IS appreciated by the staff and the family members as well. Whenever I hear a song that moves someone, it also moves me a little to tears because I know for that moment the person "remembers". A big Thank You goes out to all church choirs, entertainers, school choirs, boy/girl scout groups etc. Heck, if I could carry a tune I would be doing this also. Unfortunately my mom did not pass that gene down to me. :)
Great article! It validates what I've done with my mom -- putting on music at night. Our cable company has a group of commercial-free music channels. After her sundowners' started getting bad, I found 'Singers and Swing' which plays a lot of music my mom danced to as a young adult. While we don't use it every night, it does seem to help. Sometimes I also use it during the day.