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Music is Medicine: Music therapy for Individuals with Alzheimer’s and Dementia

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Music is the last thing we forget. There is a part of the brain some researchers call the Musical Memory Area, or MMA, that enables us to remember our favorite songs, and is also known to be resistant to Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other brain diseases. I did not know this, however, until seven years ago when I first began to sing for and interact with Memory Care Patients.

Leigh with her guitarMy journey with music therapy for Memory Care began as volunteer work in honour of my sweet grandmother Momo who was living with Alzheimer’s disease, and in honour of my grandfather and family who were all caring for her. As a professional singer and musician, I felt hopeless and helpless to my family because I lived on the other side of the country when my grandmother developed Alzheimer's disease. At this time I decided to start singing as a volunteer for Assisted Living homes and Memory Care facilities—I did my best to give back and and support in the ways I was able. A few months into my volunteer work, I had an idea that I might be able to connect with the residents more if I played the greatest hits from their younger years. With this motivation in mind, I learned all the songs by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, The Andrews Sisters, as well as some hits from the late 1930’s to the early 50’s. For a Father’s day performance at a Memory Care—an assisted living home—I decided to dress like a 1940’s movie star from head to toe, and put on an interactive show. We all danced together, took turns singing, and held hands; it was an amazing experience.

This show was when I started to notice the power of music for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients; patients were singing the lyrics, smiling, and tapping their hands and feet to the beat of my music. One family member of a patient expressed that it was the first time she had heard her Dad speak in over three months, and he was singing along with me! From this day, my passion for researching music therapy for Memory Care patients was ignited, and I knew I wanted to make this a full time commitment in my life.

Everything I am sharing here is from my own personal research, personal experiences, and through conversations and work with other Memory Care health experts and caregivers. I am not a licensed expert or professional in this field, but I learned that music can reach parts of the brain that speech, touch, movement, and other outside stimulus often can’t reach with Memory Care patients.

“Music is the only outside stimulus that lights up the entire brain at once” —Dr. Frederick Schaerf, Neuropsychiatrist

Music can help activate the brain, reconnect some neural pathways, and help rewire the brain to create new neural pathways. Music and lyrics are processed differently in the brain than speech. My grandmother could still sing church hymns and songs perfectly, even at the final stages of her Alzheimer’s, as well as her life. Even as Alzheimer’s and dementia progresses and Memory Care patients begin to forget who they are, they often show a remarkable memory for music. This is because musical memories survive widespread brain daAlive Insidemage, even when other long term memories do not. Remember the MMA (Musical Memory Area) in the brain that I talked about earlier? This MMA is separate from the hippocampus and the temporal lobe that are necessary for long term memory function. There are different theories and opinions on why the brain has this separate area for music memory, but whatever the scientific reason, it is an amazing discovery for Memory Care families and caregivers. I read that playing music for Memory care patients through headphones can also be a wonderful way to connect with patients, as it will remove other outside sounds and stimuli and allow their brains activate and connect with more ease. In my experience, I have brought in big, soft studio recording headphones to place on patients’ ears, with a headphone splitter, and I listened to and sang songs with patients. My iPod is full of every genre and style of music, so that I can try to find the music that a patient might connect with. Often times when I tried having conversations with a Memory Care patients before playing music for them, they seemed unresponsive, but found that I could have conversations—and sometimes very profound interactions—after playing music from their younger years. Some patients would even start to tell me about their childhood or family memories between listening to songs together. One woman I worked with would jump out of her chair to sing and dance to every song I sang, but this only began once I started playing music for her through headphones. The best example of this kind of music therapy work for Memory Care patients can be found in the documentary, Alive Inside. This documentary follows a very special social worker, Dan Cohen, who shares music therapy with Memory Care patients all over the country. The astounding breakthroughs he has had with Alzheimer’s patients can be found in this documentary, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about music therapy and brain diseases in general.

Marylin PianoOn a final note, I would like to share one of my amazing stories from work, which took place at a Memory Care facility where I would regularly sing my 1940’s Act. The patients in this home are often in lazy boy reclining chairs when I perform for them. I always get down on my knees, hold their hands, sing close to their faces, and often there are two patients out of the 10-12 that sing the lyrics with me, and a few other patients who smile, connect, and sometimes talk with me some. There is one woman who I could tell was listening to me, but for a year she seemed unresponsive. One afternoon, instead of being in a lazy boy reclining chair, she was seated up in a small, regular chair for lunch time. To my surprise, she sang the lyrics with me to a lot of the 1940’s songs. When I sang closer to her, she started to belt out the lyrics in perfect pitch and tone. I continued playing song after song from similar styles and artists I thought she might know, and she continued to belt out songs with me and smile—she completely lit up.

“Oxytocin—the bonding hormone known as the cuddle/feel good hormone—is released when singing.”

She was moving and dancing in her chair so much, I decided to try getting her up to dance while we sang. In the end, one of the caregivers slow danced with her while we all continued to sing together. It was remarkable. Could it have been the stimulus of the right music, at the right time? Could it have been the music, along with her not being reclined in a lazy boy chair, but propped up that day? Trying new things like this with Memory Care patients can sometimes create connections and breakthroughs. I have male patients who sometimes kiss my hand like a true gentlemen while I’m holding their hands and singing Frank Sinatra to them. There is one patient who will only sing with me if I place my hand on his arm or body; the second I move my hand away, he stops singing...and then if I touch his arm again, he will belt out each lyric with me perfectly.


Leigh soloThere are many different ways to try to connect with a Memory Care patient through music. My first recommendation would be to try and find out their favourite genre, singer, or artists from when they were younger. While playing their favourite tunes through headphones, try singing with them, dancing with them, or even just holding and swaying hands together; these are all good methods of connecting with the individual with Alzheimer’s or dementia. The part of the brain that associates music and memories remains within each individual...never touched by disease... always alive inside

Again, I am not a professional in this field, but this journey has truly been a work of passion, honour, and love for me.

If you are interested in my work, please feel free to contact me and ask any questions at LeighMadison.com

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