As Alzheimer’s patient Allie places her fingers on the piano keys and begins to instinctively play a familiar song from her youth, her husband’s doctor comments that someone must have switched the sheet music for her.
“No,” her husband Noah remarks, “that she’s playing by memory.”
This touching cinematic moment from The Notebook is not without ties to modern science. Links between music therapy and Alzheimer disease have been studied, and music therapy research has been promising, not just for patients, but for the well-being of loved ones and caregivers as well.
Alzheimer’s: How it Affects — and Doesn’t Affect — the Brain
Those that know someone affected by Alzheimer’s disease are well aware of the science behind it. The disorder targets cells of the brain, wreaking havoc on a person’s memory, language, thinking and behavior. Since it is a degenerative disease, it progressively worsens over time.
What Alzheimer’s is not found to affect, is the part of the brain that responds to auditory and rhythmic cues, specifically because that function of the brain requires little to no cognitive processing. This is true even during the latter stages of the disease. The result is that hearing a song with emotional significance to the listener with Alzheimer’s, can be enough to evoke a happy memory, time, or place in the person’s life without the cognitive burden that makes other recollections so hard.
Music as therapy can therefore be a way for dementia patients to reconnect with past positive feelings and emotions.
How Music Can Help Older Adults with Alzheimer’s
To reach a loved one through Alzheimer’s music therapy, the first step is to identify songs with positive emotional significance to that person. If the right songs don’t immediately come to mind, a great place to start is with songs popular during their childhood and/or young adult years. In order to prevent too much stimulation for them, consider tips from the American Alzheimer’s Association: avoid music with interruptions like commercials, and try to prevent competing noises from interfering and keep the volume at a reasonable level.
When playing songs, and be aware of the response of the listener. If the reaction to a song is not positive, don’t be afraid to listen to them and to try something else. The ultimate goal is to have the them engage with the music in a happy, positive way.
Music as therapy doesn’t just uplift those with Alzheimer’s, but their loved ones and caregivers, as well. It can be stressful caring for someone suffering from dementia, but the pairing of Alzheimer’s and music can ease day to day functioning. Music can be a tool that stimulates older adults during an activity when a they may need to be aware, for instance while eating. It can also be helpful in soothing a person that is in an agitated state, for instance, during an uncomfortable car ride.
Having this extra tool at your disposal can make the difficult moments of being a family caregiver a little bit easier. Above all, just like in the movie, music as therapy can facilitate moments of closeness and connection as loved ones are able to reconnect and bond in spite of the disease.