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Music and Alzheimer’s

April 18, 2018

Throughout every single stage of our lives, music is present.  We have been singing or listening to music since the day we were born – in the nursery, on the playground, in school and church, at dances, weddings and other social functions.  Some of us may have studied music or performed as a singer in a chorus. It is understandable then that our connections with music can be therapeutic when facing illness – especially memory-related illness.

Last year, the Saybrook at Haddam’s Safe Harbor memory care neighborhood began a formal music therapy program for residents.  We tapped into the talents of Maggie Carchrie, a local board-certified music therapist who comes to The Saybrook at Haddam to host lively and fun programs including familiar sing-a-longs, drumming circles, and hands-on tactile instrument playing.  We also began a “Music and Movement” program with Kerry Kency on alternating weeks. These activities help residents “unlock” old memories.

“Musical programs are one of the residents’ highlights,” said Kathy Hallett, director of Safe Harbor.  “Every single resident responds to music, sometimes by singing, sometimes by tapping their toes.  Either way, they all find meaning and enjoyment throughout every single session.”

The connections between music and Alzheimer’s was the center of a 2014 documentary, “Glen Campbell … I’ll be Me,” which focused on the award-winning singer’s battle with the disease during his final concert tour.  In a review of the film, New York Times columnist Larry Rohter said, “It seems remarkable that Mr. Campbell, a superior guitarist, can still play with such skill when he can’t recall the words or the names of his band members.”

This happens not just with world-class musicians, either. Dr. Oliver Sacks, a noted neurologist and best-selling author of “Musicophilia,” said, “When I’ve worked with people with Alzheimers and various forms of dementia, some of them are confused, some are agitated, some lethargic, some have lost language. But all of them, without exception, respond to music.”

Sacks also says that with Alzheimer’s, “you lose your past, your story, your identity to a considerable extent, but with familiar music, you can at least regain that for a little while.”  This is the biggest reason we have incorporated music therapy into our routine at The Saybrook at Haddam.

The Alzheimer’s Association says that music may “reduce agitation and improve behavioral issues that are common in the middle-stages of the disease.” They say that even in the late-stages of Alzheimer’s, “a person may be able to tap a beat or sing lyrics to a song from childhood. Music provides a way to connect, even after verbal communication has become difficult.”

Here are just a few additional tips from the Alzheimer’s Association to keep in mind when selecting music for a person with dementia:

  • Identify music that’s familiar and enjoyable to the person. If possible, let the person choose the music.
  • Choose a source of music that isn’t interrupted by commercials, which can cause confusion.
  • Use music to create the mood you want. For example, a tranquil piece of music can help create a calm environment, while a faster paced song from someone’s childhood may boost spirit and evoke happy memories.
  • Encourage movement (clapping, dancing) to add to the enjoyment.
  • Avoid sensory overload; eliminate competing noises by shutting windows and doors and by turning off the television. Make sure the volume of the music is not too loud.

For a private tour of The Saybrook at Haddam or its Safe Harbor memory care neighborhood, please fill out the form below or contact David Downey at 860-345-3779.

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