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The Power of Music to Reach the Unreachable

Things you might not have seen. But should.

“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.”

— Victor Hugo

The camera pans across the room and we see people, seemingly detached from the world, sitting in wheelchairs and staring into space. These are the patients with Alzheimer’s, slowly losing their cognitive abilities, including the ability to communicate.

The film, ALIVE INSIDE, shows what happens when a patient with dementia is given an iPod, pre-programmed with music from their past. Toes start tapping and people start singing, even dancing as the music starts to reach their core.

ALIVE INSIDE, which won the Audience Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, documents the enormous healing power of music as we watch patients reconnect with their memories and their past. The film follows social worker Dan Cohen, a visionary health care worker who founded non-profit Music and Memory. Cohen’s belief is that “music connects people with who they have been, who they are, in their lives,” and helps to restore their sense of self.

The Alzheimer’s Foundation agrees. They point out that offering music to patients with Dementia can “shift mood, manage stress-induced agitation, stimulate positive interactions, facilitate cognitive function, and coordinate motor movements.”  It can effectively reach patients even in the late stages of the disease, since it requires no cognitive processing.

Sadly the effects aren’t permanent. However, for patients and their families the ability to connect with music, even for a short time, is powerful.

If there’s someone in your life with Alzheimer’s, the Alzheimer’s Foundation recommends taking the following steps to reach someone who is otherwise unreachable:

Early stage

  • Go out dancing or dance in the house.
  • Listen to music that the person liked in the past—whether swing or Sinatra or salsa.
  • Recognize that perceptual changes can alter the way individuals with dementia hear music. If they say it sounds horrible, turn it off; it may to them.
  • Experiment with various types of concerts and venues, giving consideration to endurance and temperament.
  • Encourage an individual who played an instrument to try it again.
  • Compile a musical history of favorite recordings, which can be used to help in reminiscence and memory recall.

Early and middle stages

  • Use song sheets or a karaoke player so the individual can sing along with old-time favorites.

Middle stage

  • Play music or sing as the individual is walking to improve balance or gait.
  • Use background music to enhance mood.
  • Opt for relaxing music—a familiar, non-rhythmic song—to reduce sundowning, or behavior problems at nighttime.

Late stage

  • Utilize the music collection of old favorites that you made earlier.
  • Do sing-alongs, with “When the Saints Go Marching In” or other tunes sung by rote in that person’s generation.
  • Play soothing music to provide a sense of comfort.
  • Exercise to music.
  • Do drumming or other rhythm-based activities.
  • Use facial expressions to communicate feelings when involved in these activities.

For more on the power of music to reach patients with Alzheimer’s and Dementia:

Why music boosts brain activity in dementia patients

Watch ALIVE INSIDE on Amazon Video

Oliver Sacks, noted brain scientist, on the impact of music on the brain: Musicophilia

Information on current research

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