Talk to neuroscientists, physicians and music therapists and they sing the same tune: when people hear music they like or make music (singing, drumming, or dancing to it), good chemicals such as dopamine are released in the pleasure centers of the brain and make them feel good. Brain imaging and clinical studies on people’s psychological states back up these findings.
Music is used for depression and mood, agitation, social interaction, balance, gait, attention, pain and appetite, to name just some. Some long term care settings are seeing a link between music and the reduction of psychotherapeutic drugs.
The beauty of music is that you don’t need to be a pro to use it effectively. It pauses the drudgery of the day, for both caregivers and their loved ones, and is a special way to bond.
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Here are six ways to make music matter:
Music from early childhood or when they were in their late teens and 20’s seems to “stick” best. Those could be show tunes, swing, opera, or opera for instance. They may love Andy Williams, Dean Martin or Tony Bennett. You can start with famous songs like “Moon River” or “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby” or any number of others. (Google “best songs of the 1940s” or Billboard’s top hits of the ’40s and 50s.”)
“Most people enjoy music most familiar to them,” says Alicia Clair, a professor of music therapy at the University of Kansas, who studies the effects of music on dementia, Parkinson’s, stroke and physical frailty.
Ask them what their favorite songs were/are. If that’s not feasible, play songs and see how they respond.
Engage them, if possible, by asking what they remember about the song. It is likely to remind them of a time or person. Did they used to dance to certain tunes that might bring back memories?
If they’re just waking up, try something calming. Have to take a shower? The tempo can be peppier to get them to the task (“When the Saints Go Marching In,” perhaps?). When it’s time for bed, opt for something soothing and slow. You can also have them put on headphones. Before bed, try a song with a slow tempo. You get the idea. A good resource is Soundscape Music Therapy.
Warning: Make sure they’re not too tired, the music is not too loud and frenetic or the environment is overly stimulating.
Create your own playlist of your parent’s favorite songs.
Check out the Music & Memory site to tailor-make a playlist.
SingFit is a mobile app and program used in both senior living communities and by individual family caregivers. It gives you the lyric cues to a song so you don’t have to remember the words. Designed for such diverse conditions as dementia, autism and traumatic brain injuries, you can sing and record favorite tunes to a playlist.
Is it an iPod, CD, laptop, smartphone or MP3 player? Real vinyl records? With a Mac, you can download music from iTunes. Pandora Radio lets you match a music genre (i.e. classical, country, jazz,), and singer (Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra?) or era, such as the 1930s. Spotify has thousands of songs to choose from, too.
If you’re in the car, you can put on your playlist, or the radio and have a sing along. Try familiar oldies like “Take Me Out To The Ball Game,” “Home On the Range” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.”
Have Dad pick up chimes or drums. Drumming circles — where people come together to play — has become popular with older adults. It’s a physical workout with therapeutic benefits, too. “I know people who couldn’t dress themselves or talk but could still play an instrument,” says Concetta Tomaino, founder of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function.
Music and drumming are not impacted by the loss of memory. (To find a drumming circle in your area or start your own, go to: www.remo.com/health.
Dancing is possible under any circumstances. Even if your loved one sits all day or is in a wheelchair, they can still clap their hands to the rhythm or march in place to music.
Two computer programs of note: Virtuoso is a “piano” for playing duets. Sound Prism also makes chords when you put your hand on the screen.
What type of music does your loved one like? Have you tried singing, listening to music with them, or drumming? Hearing your stories would be music to our ears!