Music has a profound impact on the lives of individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. I know this firsthand after caring for my late father who passed from complications with fronto-temporal dementia. Music helped him connect with familiar moments, find and identify himself within foreign locations and new living conditions, and even helped him with social interactions and enjoying moments with others that may otherwise have made him anxious or agitated. How was music having such a profound experience upon his life living with dementia? And what might we learn by accounting for the processes involved? This blog presents findings from a scoping review of the literature accounting for ways in which familiar music may help individuals living with dementia and their caregivers to connect . It closes with a ‘how to’ for setting up a playlist of familiar music for loved ones living with dementia.
Memory for music involves a number of areas of the brain that work together to produce the experience we know and love from listening to music [2, 3]. As the disease progresses in the brain from Alzheimer’s, fronto-temporal, or Parkinson’s as examples, the relative preservation of these areas of the brain contributes to the possibility to claim musical memory as deeply linked to people’s physical responses to music , which may contribute to an understanding of the outward expressions of joy many individuals living with dementia display as they engage with their preferred music .
Familiar music, in particular, helps individuals living with dementia and their caregivers to connect with one another . As I experienced with my father, music that was familiar to him helped us to make eye contact more regularly, share smiles, and generally experience more happiness as his disease progressed. Our literature provides a visual model to account for how familiar music may help to connect loved ones and caregivers considering the following four steps: 1) familiar music often delivered via headphones and a digital music player; 2) triggers memories in persons living with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias; 3) memories of positive experiences can have a positive impact upon an individual’s mood state; 4) this can help shift often tense or anxious social atmospheres into joyous exchanges with others.
To help your loved one living with dementia engage with familiar music, you first need to ask yourself what kind of music your loved one enjoys: what kind of music did they listen to or make before they began showing symptoms of dementia? Perhaps they liked swing or big-band era music, rock n’ roll from the 1950’s or blues music from the 1930s and 40s? Whatever their preferences, once you have had a moment to deeply think about what they like, you can use that information to search for recordings from the internet using YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, or perhaps CDs. You can transfer those digital recordings onto an iPod, iPad, or another digital device to use for personalized delivery of the music.
Take a moment to create a playlist of the selected songs by ordering the presentation of the music, based upon a progression of moods you may like your loved one to experience. Then place some comfortable headphones on your loved one and press play. Particularly if they are suffering from memory-related dementia, you can repeat this process multiple times a day to help them reconnect with something familiar. This process is part of the Music and Memory organization’s toolkit for caregivers to better care for their loved ones .
There is a lot of work to be done to better understand how familiar music helps individuals living with dementia and their caregivers connect with one another. We need to better understand how music and memory work together to create such wonderful moments between loved ones and caregivers. From my experience, music can have a profound impact upon not only your loved one but also you as the caregiver. I encourage you to spend some time creating a playlist of familiar music for your loved one and take notice of how the quality of your lives together improves.
By: Aaron Colverson | Leonardo Fellow
 Colverson, A. J., Trifilio, E., & Williamson, J. B. (2022). Music, Mind, Mood, and Mingling in Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias: A Scoping Review. Journal of Alzheimer’s disease: JAD, 86(4), 1569–1588. https://doi.org/10.3233/JAD-215199
 Jacobsen, J. H., Stelzer, J., Fritz, T. H., Chételat, G., La Joie, R., & Turner, R. (2015). Why musical memory can be preserved in advanced Alzheimer’s disease. Brain, 138(8), 2438-2450. https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awv135
 Peck, K. J., Girard, T. A., Russo, F. A., & Fiocco, A. J. (2016). Music and memory in Alzheimer’s disease and the potential underlying mechanisms. Journal of Alzheimer’s disease, 51(4), 949-959. 10.3233/JAD-150998
 Janata, P., Tomic, S. T., & Haberman, J. M. (2012). Sensorimotor coupling in music and the psychology of the groove. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141(1), 54–75. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0024208
 Gubner, J. (2018). The music and memory project: understanding music and dementia through applied ethnomusicology and experiential filmmaking. Yearbook for Traditional Music, 50, 15-40. 10.5921/yeartradmusi.50.2018.0015
 Faw, M. H., Luxton, I., Cross, J. E., & Davalos, D. (2021). Surviving and thriving: Qualitative results from a multi-year, multidimensional intervention to promote well-being among caregivers of adults with dementia. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(9), 4755. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18094755
 Music and Memory. (2022, May 5). https://musicandmemory.org/