When a parent, spouse, or relative is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, it can feel as if you’re starting an uncertain journey without any sort of roadmap. It’s a feeling that can persist even as the disease progresses. Often, caregivers look back during the later stages of Alzheimer’s and wish they’d taken earlier steps that would have made late-stage caregiving easier.

One particular area where this can crop up is music therapy for Alzheimer’s sufferers. In recent years, music therapy has been the subject of increased media attention and scientific research. There is now widespread anecdotal and data-driven evidence that music therapy is one of the most effective ways to reduce stress and improve the mood of Alzheimer’s sufferers, particularly those in the mid-to-late stages of the disease.

One of the biggest challenges to music therapy for Alzheimer’s patients is choosing the right music. That’s because the most effective music therapy programs use a patient’s favorite songs from their childhood, teenage years, and early adulthood. Even when late-stage Alzheimer’s has claimed other memories, the beat or hook of a once-familiar tune can dissipate stress, encourage cognitive activity, and transport sufferers back to the feeling of happier times.

If you are caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s, it can be hard to find the right tunes for music therapy — especially if you start searching in the mid-to-late stages of the disease. By this point, it will likely be more difficult for your loved one to recall the artists and song titles they were most fond of growing up. More important, it will be harder for them to have the kind of conversations that make it easier to build a music therapy playlist.

If you have someone close to you who’s recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, taking steps now could make it easier to care for your loved one in the later stages of their condition. To find the artists and songs your loved one responds best to, consider the following suggested steps and resources.

Start with Conversation and Research

The first place to start when researching a loved one’s childhood musical tastes is with conversation. Even if your loved one can’t remember all — or even most — of their favorite artists and songs from their early years, they will likely be able to remember a few that you can use as a launching off point.

It’s not necessary to have a single long and intensive conversation. In fact, it may depress your loved one to dwell on preparations for the progression of their illness. If this is the case, you may wish to have short conversations, or ask casually without bringing Alzheimer’s into the conversation. On the other hand, your loved one might enjoy the trip down memory lane, in which case you should feel free to mine their memories.

Once you’ve pinned down a few of their favorite songs and artists, you can turn to the internet for further research. These days, it’s easier than ever to explore a genre or decade of music. Whether you’re using links on Wikipedia, a music streaming service, an oldies satellite radio station, or a combination of all three, you can begin researching the sort of singers, bands, and songwriters that your loved one grew up listening to.

As a general rule, focus on the twenty-year period between your loved one’s fifth and twenty-fifth birthdays. Find out what kind of songs were on the radio at that time, and which artists were most closely associated with the ones your loved one enjoyed. You can use links between Wikipedia articles, suggested artists on streaming services, or whoever’s up next on the oldie station to make these connections.

kitchen radio with a cup of teaSee What Your Loved One Responds To

Once you’ve brainstormed a list of possible artists and songs, start putting playlists together to share with your loved one. Unless your loved one is invested in the project, don’t force him or her to sit down with headphones and a notepad. Instead, play the songs as background music while doing tasks together, during relaxing moments, or while driving in the car.

At this point, see how your loved one responds. If your loved one says they remember certain songs or certain artists, make a mental or physical note of which ones. If they seem to perk up at the sound of a particular tune, keep that song in mind for the future. If they’re humming along or bouncing their knee to the beat, that’s even better.

During these listening periods, you’ll start to get a better sense of which artists and genres your loved one connects with most. You can then start repeating this process, using the songs and artists your loved one likes to get a better sense of which other songs and artists they might be inclined toward. You can then go back to your research to brainstorm new songs to try out.

The more time you spend on this, the more you can become familiar with the music from your loved one’s earlier years. As you become better versed in the music of the time, you’ll be able to make smarter and more educated guesses about your loved one’s tastes. You might also find that you begin to develop a deeper bond with your loved one through this process, giving the two of you something to talk about that truly hits home.

Create Personalized Playlists for Music Therapy

Whether your list ends up getting narrowed down or dramatically expanded, you’ll soon be able to generate a full collection of songs for future music therapy. At this point, you can begin to put half-hour or hour-long playlists together, selecting the songs that you think will be most joyous or most calming for your loved one.

Of course, there’s no need to shelve this collection during the early stages of your loved one’s Alzheimer’s. If you’ve found that these songs have had a positive effect on your loved one, you should continue to play them and enjoy them together.

You may even wish to take more trips down memory lane. These days, it’s just as easy to research old radio shows or movies that your loved one may not have heard or seen for several years. While plot-driven narratives are hard to follow for mid-stage and late-stage Alzheimer’s sufferers, reliving these memories can be invaluable for those in Alzheimer’s early stages.

radio on console in living room of a hospice center

When the Time Comes, You’ll Be Ready

By doing this kind of legwork during the early stages of Alzheimer’s, it is easier to provide music therapy for a loved one when they reach mid-stage or late-stage Alzheimer’s. While this can be an extraordinarily difficult time for you and your loved one alike, it can be made easier if you’re able to provide your loved one with moments where he or she feels comfortable and at peace with the world.

At this time, it’s important to make sure that your loved one is comfortable when listening to his or her music. Consider investing in a padded pair of over-ear headphones, which can make it easier for your loved one to focus on his or her music. Also, remember that music played at loud volumes can be stressful or disorienting for those suffering from memory disorders. Make sure to test the volume of the music before playing it for your loved one and try turning it down if the volume seems to agitate him or her.

In addition to music therapy, there are a number of other therapeutic activities and exercises for those with Alzheimer’s. More and more Alzheimer’s caregivers are integrating art therapy and nature therapy into the care they provide for Alzheimer’s sufferers. These therapies — either in conjunction with music therapy or on their own — may also help you in caring for your loved one.


Larry Meigs, President & CEO of Visiting Angels

Visiting Angels is America’s choice in home care. Since 1998, Visiting Angels locations across the country have been helping elderly and disabled individuals by providing care and support in the comfort of home. In addition to senior home care and adult care, Visiting Angels provides dementia care and Alzheimer’s care for individuals suffering from memory disorders. There are now more than five hundred Visiting Angels locations nationwide.

About Larry Meigs

Visiting Angels is America’s choice in home care. Since 1998, Visiting Angels locations across the country have been helping elderly and disabled individuals by providing care and support in the comfort of home. In addition to senior home care and adult care, Visiting Angels provides dementia care and Alzheimer’s care for individuals suffering from memory disorders. There are now more than five hundred Visiting Angels locations nationwide.

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