It's a diagnosis that we dread, both for our loved ones and ourselves: Alzheimer's disease. Although at first glance, it may seem that the disease has robbed a person of their sense of self, this is not always the case. Not all people with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia entirely lose their sense of self. The feelings, emotions and memories of experiences that make them who they are may still reside inside of them. It's their ability to access this sense of self that now becomes the challenge.

Scientists at research organizations, such as the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function (IMNF), have been studying the effects of music on the human condition for more than 30 years. And results have been promising. Now, technology is playing a key role in helping people with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia reconnect to their memories and their loved ones, if only for immediate and short periods of time.

As MP3 players such as the iPod have become more mainstream, they are being used as part of music therapy. A new program, called "Well-Tuned: Music Players for Health," is helping people who suffer from Alzheimer's disease...and it is music to caregivers' ears.

Professionals from IMNF will work with caregivers to develop a play list of music that is emotionally significant to the person with dementia. The play list is customized based on the elder's life experiences, cultural backgrounds and frame of reference. As with lovers who grow sentimental when "their song" is played on the radio, the right music stimulates the personal associations that it is connected with, sparking memory and renewed "presence." It is best to select music that is familiar, enjoyable and meaningful to the elder with dementia.

How iPod music helps Alzheimer's patients with memory

Caregivers can also enhance the impact of the music with meaningful photos of family, friends or by telling family stories and talking about past events. Often, the music can spark memories that were thought to be long gone, or stimulate recognition of a loved one that moments earlier was no more than a blank face.

Music may also help a person with dementia transition more easily throughout the day. Playing lively, upbeat music can be used as a stimulus to help motivate an elder to take a walk or participate in an activity. Alternatively, slower, more calming music will help relax an elder when they are agitated or help them wind down as bedtime approaches.

Browse Our Free Senior Care Guides

The science behind music therapy has to do with the emotional connections we make to music throughout our life and where in the brain those connections live. Music stimulates the areas of the brain that are involved in emotion, association and long-term memory processes for people with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. As a result, musical selections that are linked to emotions and personal experiences can unlock memories and associations.

Senior residential facilities, adult day care centers, and assisted living centers are now using music therapy as part of the residents' routine.

For caregivers, seeing the light of recognition in a loved one's eyes is priceless.

For more information, visit IMNF works in collaboration with Music and Memory, an organization that encourages the use of personalized music on digital music players, with funding from the Shelly and Donald Rubin Foundation.