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Music awakens deep memories for Alzheimer’s patients

Film offers insights into reaching hearts through song

Deeply buried memories and emotions spring to the surface at the sound of familiar songs. A Sundance award-winning documentary shows how patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s display heightened awareness and interaction through music therapy.

Released in 2012, Alive Inside tracks the work of the Music and Memory organization, which trains and certifies caregivers. Personalized iPod playlists help individuals respond to music they recognize, with moving results.

As any Barbershopper who has sung in a senior home setting can attest, the rewards to singer and audience alike are profound. Enhance your effectiveness with these ideas from music therapist Ariel Weissberger blogging on CuedIn for music publishing powerhouse J.W. Pepper.

How to you can share music with Alzheimer’s patients

Weissberger relies heavily on his ability to improvise when working with clients. He double majored in music therapy and music performance at Berklee College of Music and has a master’s in music therapy from New York University. His education has given him the ability to roll with the punches both emotionally and musically. Here are some of his tips for working with individuals living with Alzheimer’s:

  • Start by talking with them. Don’t talk down to them – use a normal speaking tone.
  • Begin with songs that may be familiar to them based on suggestions from family members or popular songs from their era.
  • Play in a way that matches where their emotions are at that moment. If they are anxious, you can start with a song that’s a little faster. If they seem sad, you can play a sadder song. “Don’t try to make them happy if they don’t seem to be in that place. The disconnection could be irritating,” Weissberger said.
  • Create invitations for them to join in. Weissberger recommends using verses that end in a familiar song title. Then you can leave out the last part of the verse to see if they’ll join in. Examples include The Way You Look Tonight, What a Wonderful World, and The Sunny Side of the Street. You can also use songs that have a lot of repetition in the lyrics, such as Que Sera, Sera, Down by the Riverside, and I Want to Hold Your Hand.
  • Be flexible. If you start one song and the patient begins singing a different one, change your song. If they are tapping a different beat with their foot or fingers than the one you’re playing, match their rhythm.
  • Try different things that involve listening, singing, or playing music, including opportunities with drums or shakers.
  • Add pieces that may orient them to the world around them, such as autumn songs for the fall, or holiday songs.
  • Consider doing group activities. Weissberger leads drum circles for people with Alzheimer’s disease, since rhythm is fairly innate and participants can drum together.