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Music & Dementia

Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia continue to plague seniors across America. Alzheimer’s Disease International estimated that Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias will double very 20 years and effect 78 million seniors by 2030. Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe progressive memory loss diseases. Despite the level of brain impairment and severity in dementia, certain activities remain preserved in most instances and are very resistant to decline. These include activities such as pedaling an indoor bicycle, enjoying music, dancing, and throwing a baseball. The person doing these activities may not know who you are or who they are, but these activities were learned and engrained in their younger years and remain.

As dementia progresses many seniors develop behaviors which can range from emotional outbursts, increased agitation, frustration to depression, and anxiety. In long-term care communities, behavior modification tools can be used to ease symptoms, duration, or intensity of emotional episodes. One of the most effective tools found to help with behaviors is music. Caring Places Management has developed a “Brain Music” program specifically tailored to their memory care residents.

Neurologist Borna Bonakdarpour, MD, is a physician musician. He combines his love of music with research on how musical intervention affects the brain of people with dementia. “When we use musical intervention, we’re looking for areas and networks in the brain that are intact to serve as bridges and help the areas that are not working well,” says Dr. Bonakdarpour. “Singing, for example, can be a bridge to communicating better through language. The rhythmic nature of music can help people walk better.”

An article by Jonathan Graff-Radford, M.D, he states “Research suggests that listening to or singing songs can provide emotional and behavioral benefits for people with Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia. Musical memories are often preserved because key brain areas linked to musical memory are relatively undamaged by the disease. Music can also benefit caregivers by reducing anxiety and distress, lightening the mood, and providing a way to connect with loved ones — especially those who have difficulty communicating.”

Our Caring Place communities use music daily whether enjoying musical performers, joining in a sing-a-long, dance or using calming music in other activities. Typically, performers or music during large group activity does not engage residents on a personal level. Our Brain Music program works to make the music selection very personal, and we have seen this become a very powerful tool for our residents. With family assistance we can curate individual playlists for each resident. It is incredible to witness non-verbal residents come to life when their favorite tune is played singing and tapping their toes. We have seen residents who are slow to engage in community activities jump in to enjoy singing and dancing with a group.

Here are some practical tips when selecting music for a person with dementia from

  • 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.

The right music at the right time can speak to us like nothing else can. The music triggers emotion and memory and uses different parts of the brain than other functions, like speech and movement. When used in the right way and at the right times, it can transform a resident’s quality of life and ease the effects of many physical and cognitive impairments. Occasionally the benefits of the music are minor or subtle, but often they are immediate, clear, and beneficial outcomes for the resident and our care teams.

For the residents we serve in our communities, even the smallest improvement in any of these areas can have a big impact on their overall quality of life. Please discuss the CPM Brain Music program, and request Music List Request form, with your community Administrator.

If you or a loved one are struggling with dementia and living at home is no longer an option, you need a Caring Place. Visit us online to find your nearest community at

Article Submitted by:

Hanna Hales, Caring Places Management


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