By mid-December, even the most avid holiday lover may have had enough of the cheerful tunes that have been piping their way through the speakers of every retail outlet, airport, grocery store and doctor's office since late-October. But if you're taking care of a loved one with dementia, there's one Christmas album that might still catch your eye (and ears).
"Memories: The Songs and Spirit of Christmas," is the latest collection from Alzheimer's Music Connect, a company that creates musical medleys for people with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.
"Having spent an entire career in the music industry, I have seen the healing power music can have on people," says Ron Gregory, President and Founder of Alzheimer's Music Connect. When Gregory's mother, Elaine, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, he wanted to see whether that curative potential could be harnessed to help her and the millions of others affected by the condition. "I asked myself a simple question: What could be done to keep my Mom connected for as long as possible? This question became my quest."
The Science of Music
Evidence, both anecdotal and scientific, has uncovered the positive influence that listening to music can have on men and women with dementia—even those in the very late stages of Alzheimer's disease. The right song can help a deeply forgetful person access old memories, attain a sense of relief from feelings of anxiety, improve their cognitive functioning. Some melodies can even inspire someone who's been rendered mute by Alzheimer's to suddenly burst into song.
But Gregory wanted to see if a special recording method might amp up the benefits of song for dementia patients. After collaborating with a team of medical and caregiving professionals (including the highly-regarded caregiving expert, Teepa Snow), Gregory developed a science-backed symphonic technique called Altus Oscillation ("higher waves") to make everyday songs uniquely resonant for men and women with dementia.
Altus Oscillation infuses Alpha waves—a type of brainwave that is present in large quantities in the brain during meditation and REM sleep—into popular melodies. While the average listener likely won't be able to hear the difference, preliminary research points to the benefits that dementia patients can derive by listening to alpha-wave enhanced songs.
Neurologist, Dr. Lorianne Avino used electroencephalography (EEG) scans to measure the brain wave activity of men and women with Alzheimer's while they listened to tracks that had been enriched by Altus Oscillation, versus ordinary versions of the songs. She concluded that the specially-treated tunes had the potential to bestow a series of benefits on people with dementia.
Benefits of Music for Dementia Patients
- A heightened sense of awareness of the present moment
- Greater brain activity in the frontal or parietal lobe
- Increased symmetrical brain activity
- A calmer, more contented demeanor
Striking the Right Chord
Song selection is an important element of the music therapy process. Since most people's musical memories are formed between the ages of eight and 20 years old, the songs we hear during this brief window of time are the ones we're most likely to develop a deep connection with. Thus, a track that ties a person with dementia back to the holiday celebrations of their adolescence will exert more influence over their mental state.
What doesn't appear to make much of a difference is what musical genre a song comes from. Jazz, Country, Classical—it's the person's unique musical memories that really matter.
"Memories" contains acoustic versions of 18 classic Christmas songs, including "White Christmas," "Silent Night," and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." Each track features the pure, natural tones of Vanessa Campagna, a Nashville-based singer who has performed with everyone from the National Symphony Orchestra, to Keith Urban and Trace Adkins. It's a combination that Gregory feels will connect with all ages of Alzheimer's patients and their families. "Vanessa is the first artist to put goosebumps on my arms in a very long time," he says. "What makes Vanessa unique isn't that she's a country singer, it's that she emotionally connects and take ownership of the song. Too many artists make singing the song about their style, their voice."
Music Makes Dementia More Manageable
While Gregory hopes "Memories" and the other CDs and DVDs created by Alzheimer's Music Connect will be music to a dementia patient's ears, he acknowledges that music therapy is but one tool available to families affected by degenerative cognitive conditions.
Ultimately, he says, dementia patients and their loved ones need two things to manage the trials of their journey:
"Everyone, including my own family, has to be focusing their energy on the best parts of the person they have loved with Alzheimer's disease that remain, not on what has been lost. After all, my mom is still my mom. She is just different now."
"The reality of being a caregiver is recognizing a life filled with stress and anxiety. Sometimes caregiver fatigue is accompanied by a polar change in attitude—from positive and caring to negative and unconcerned. The best way for a caregiver to remain effective is by taking care of himself or herself. Stepping away and finding outlets for relaxation are critical to the caregiver's ability to be patient and loving to their care recipient."