Almost everyone has been moved deeply by music at some time in their life. Whether it’s the song your mother sang to you as a child at bedtime, a or the track you choose for the first dance at your wedding, or a commercial jingle you just couldn’t get out of your head, music shapes us and stays with us. And that’s true for all of our lives, from childhood to old age. And it’s especially amazing the effect music can have on seniors who are struggling to remember what came before.
Several scientific studies have shown the profound affect that music can have on elderly people, especially those with memory disorders. The associations a song conjures up can transport people of all ages out of the present and into some past moment— past moments that might not be fully accessible to those affected by Alzheimer’s or dementia.
According to one 2015 neurological study, suggests that “our favorite songs transport us largely by conjuring surrogate emotions” and stimulate centers of the brain dedicated to “emotion, reward, autonomic and motor programs.” Indeed, it is this affect that music has on us that might be why it is such a uniquely human pursuit. The study suggests that music may be of evolutionary importance especially because it is so cognitively stimulating.
Cognitive stimulation is the backbone of most memory care services. It’s crucial to provide stimulation without pressure, and make opportunities for neural connections to flourish. Memory issues can be especially stressful on caregivers and the cared-for alike, because they so directly affect everyday life and the ways we relate to one another.
It can be tricky sometimes to find ways to talk to a loved one whose memory is challenged without condescending. It can feel like they aren’t there and speak accordingly. It’s important to remember you’re speaking with the person you have always known, albeit one who is having a harder time making connections. But those with memory care conditions respond especially well to familiar, beloved objects, eye contact, and simplified conversations that are one-on-one.
People with Alzheimer’s and dementia can have a hard time with distractions like background noise, and can forget steps in rote processes like cooking and paying the bills. It’s important to ease the frustration and even fear that difficulty with what was once simple can cause. What you say is of less importance than how you say it, and above all it’s most important to simply let your loved one know that you’re there, and that you care.
That’s one way that music can come in handy for bridging the gaps that can be created by dementia and Alzheimer’s. It may be too stressful to discuss current events, daily routines, or personal relationships, but talking about a song by Chubby Checker or Fatz Domino can be a way to relate, remember, and enjoy the present moment.
Bringing certain props or settings into the mix that evoke the past and will seem familiar on a deep level can enhance the effect. That’s why some memory communities and senior living facilities try to use bright, cheerful colors or to design spaces in familiar ways, such as looking like mid-century towns or even cruise ships. Not only does it evoke the past, good memory facility design at retirement communities can limit confusion and frustration, helping residence stay in a more serene and functional state.
Next time you want to spend time with a loved one who has memory issues, consider using music to bridge the gap. You could find that you’re hearing stories and opinions your loved one has never shared before! It’s a wonderful way to get to know a person past, present, and future.