Music in Every Day Interactions for People with Dementia

We've written a lot about the value of music therapy as a means of helping people with Alzheimer's and dementia. Research shows that music can calm stress-induced agitation, change mood and facilitate cognitive function.

According to Alicia Ann Clair, professor and director of the Division of Music Education and Music at the University of Kansas, this occurs because "rhythmic and other well-rehearsed responses require little to no cognitive or mental processing". She says that "A person’s ability to engage in music, particularly rhythm playing and singing, remains intact late into the disease process because, again, these activities do not mandate cognitive functioning for success".

This is true not only for formal music programs, but also by using music in our daily interactions with people with dementia. By singing appropriately selected songs while working with the person, we can make our interactions more meaningful. Whether you're a home caregiver, or a professional in a facility, music can help make the day more meaningful.

Selecting the appropriate music is key. Music stimulates personal associations and meanings and we can't assume that these associations and meanings are universal. One person named Donna may cringe when you launch into “Oh Donna” by Ritchie Valens, whereas another Donna may enjoy it because it was her mother’s favorite song. Pay attention to how the music is affecting the breathing pace of the person and their facial expression to make sure that the music is having the desired effect. Once you have found songs that work for a person, share it with the rest of the team.

Don't be shy about singing - you don't have to be Barbara Streisand or Frank Sinatra to get results!

Here are some ideas for using music in your everyday interactions with people with dementia:

Suggestion

Pick a standard song for each type of interaction

Pick a song to cue specific behaviour
 

Pick a unique song for each person, something that is special to them and you

Example

“You Are My Sunshine” as you open the blind

“It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” when it’s time to walk down the hall to the dining room or kitchen

One place to start might be songs with a person’s name - “Good Night Irene”, “Daisy, Daisy”, “Henry the 8th”, “Danny Boy” etc.