Keeping People with Dementia Active Through Music

Editor’s Note: Here is the outline of a presentation I’m giving on using music as an activity with people who have Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. It’s geared to professional caregivers, but I think it will be helpful for family members as well.  — MAB 

1. Introduction: You, Your Loved Ones or Clients, and Music
– What is your earliest memory of music?
– Did you sing as a child? Did you play an instrument?
– Do your loved ones or clients with dementia listen to music? What kinds of music?

2. What Music Does for Us
According to neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks, music can:
– Organize
– Bring a sense of identity back to people who are out of it.”

VIDEO of dementia patient Henry responding to his favorite music, from the documentary Alive Inside
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3. Music Is a Whole-Brain Exercise

GRAPHIC: Why Your Brain Loves That New Song

VIDEO: Gabby Giffords: Finding Voice Through Music Therapy

4. Bringing Music to People with Dementia

ARTICLE: How Can Music Help People Who Have Alzheimer’s Disease?

VIDEO: Validation Therapy founder Naomi Feil reaches out to Gladys Wilson, a woman with advanced dementia

5. Using Music for ADLs (Activities for Daily Living)

SONGS for children on such activities as brushing teeth or taking a bath can be adapted for adults.

6. Making Up Our Own Songs with Clients or Loved Ones

VIDEO: How Musical Improvisation Can Be Used with Children with Special Needs by music therapist Ryan Judd

7. Using Music for Ourselves: Stress Reduction and Relaxation

CHANT by Mary Ann Barton: “In This Moment, with This Breath”

Selected References:

For Elders with Dementia, Musical Awakenings: This is an NPR interview about the video of nursing-home resident Henry responding to music by jazz great Cab Calloway.

How Music Affects the Brain and How You Can Use It to Your Advantage:

How to Create a Personalized Playlist for Your Loved One at Home from Music & Memory:

The Neuroscience of Music:

Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Internet Radio is a resource for listening with your loved ones or clients to discover what music they prefer:

Soundscaping Source – Musical Materials and Ideas for Eldercare Professionals from music therapist Rachelle Norman:

4 thoughts on “Keeping People with Dementia Active Through Music

  1. Mary Ann,
    Great meeting you today at Kate Munger’s Threshold Choir workshop in Littleton.
    I love this YouTube video and have sent it to many people wanting to know more about the healing and – I dare say – resurrecting power of music.
    Check out this link to a TEDx talk I gave about the growth of hospice choirs in America.

    I look forward to further exchanges of info!

    John Bos


    1. John, I just watched the video of your TEDx Talk about hospice choirs, and I found it very moving, very poignant. I think the connections we make through singing and listening together can be full of meaning.


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