How Music Helps Adults with Alzheimer’s Disease

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One viral video revealed the power of music in a way few other film clips could. It shows a patient suffering from severe dementia who was given headphones with his favorite music from his youth. The moment the music hits his ears, his whole being becomes visibly engaged. The incident reveals what scientists now know – that music memory is embedded in a part of the brain that is preserved even as the brain deteriorates from disease.

The clip has become part of a larger film called Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory. It won the Sundance Film Festival’s 2014 Audience Award for U.S. Documentary. The film’s director and producer Michael Rossato-Bennett said the man featured in the viral clip had a deep impact on many people.

“It’s spectacular to see another human being awakened. It shocked me,” Rossato-Bennett said.

Tens of thousands of nursing homes around the globe have since added programs that give patients access to playlists of their favorite music. Some schools have even started programs that enable students to work one-on-one with patients.

Students from The Healdsburg School in California and Ibero University in Mexico City are among those who have participated in programs inspired by “Alive Inside.”

The power of song is no secret to music therapists like Ariel Weissberger, who regularly works with older adults, including individuals with Alzheimer’s disease. He was inspired by his grandparents to start Berko Music Therapy in New York City.

“I love the stories from older adults’ lives and the knowledge I draw from those stories,” Weissberger said. “I learn so much from them.”

Weissberger says music therapy provides opportunities for Alzheimer’s patients that few other daily life experiences can. He has a number of techniques to help older adults actively participate in sessions.

“The most important goal is to enhance a feeling of connection to self and others. Alzheimer’s is an isolating and debilitating disease. Individuals living with it need opportunities for engagement and interaction,” Weissberger said.

Research about the brain shows why adults who suffer a devastating loss of important life functions, communications skills, and memories can still participate in and enjoy musical activities.

Music Preservation in the Brain

Research on how music affects Alzheimer’s patients has been ongoing in recent years as the population of elderly people suffering from dementia grows. President Ronald Reagan declared November to be Alzheimer’s Awareness Month in 1983. Since that year, the number of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s has increased dramatically to 5.8 million. Millions of others are caregivers for family members with the disease.

University of Utah researchers performed brain MRIs on Alzheimer’s patients to see why music memory remains when so much else fades away as the disease progresses.

“We find that participants listening to preferred music show specific activation of the supplementary motor area, a region that has been associated with memory for familiar music that is typically spared in early Alzheimer’s disease,” the study’s 2018 report reads.

The researchers also found that music seemed to temporarily increase connectivity in the brain. This finding has been echoed in other studies. A 2018 study by the University of Toronto noted that music-based intervention increased brain connectivity in areas involved in the processing of emotion and in tasks such as thinking about others or the past.

While music certainly can’t cure Alzheimer’s, it’s evident in studies and in therapy sessions that it eases anxiety and brings joy during a difficult time at the end of life. Weissberger says it can be a powerful experience to help people cope as they face their physical decline.

The most important goal is to enhance a feeling of connection to self and others.

– Music Therapist Ariel Weissberger

How to Share Music with Alzheimer’s Patients

Weissberger relies heavily on his ability to improvise when working with clients. He double majored in music therapy and music performance at Berklee College of Music and has a master’s in music therapy from New York University. His education has given him the ability to roll with the punches both emotionally and musically. Here are some of his tips for working with individuals living with Alzheimer’s:

  • Start by talking with them. Don’t talk down to them – use a normal speaking tone.
  • Begin with songs that may be familiar to them based on suggestions from family members or popular songs from their era.
  • Play in a way that matches where their emotions are at that moment. If they are anxious, you can start with a song that’s a little faster. If they seem sad, you can play a sadder song. “Don’t try to make them happy if they don’t seem to be in that place. The disconnection could be irritating,” Weissberger said.
  • Create invitations for them to join in. Weissberger recommends using verses that end in a familiar song title. Then you can leave out the last part of the verse to see if they’ll join in. Examples include The Way You Look Tonight, What a Wonderful World, and The Sunny Side of the Street. You can also use songs that have a lot of repetition in the lyrics, such as Que Sera, Sera, Down by the Riverside, and I Want to Hold Your Hand.
  • Be flexible. If you start one song and the patient begins singing a different one, change your song. If they are tapping a different beat with their foot or fingers than the one you’re playing, match their rhythm.
  • Try different things that involve listening, singing, or playing music, including opportunities with drums or shakers.
  • Add pieces that may orient them to the world around them, such as autumn songs for the fall, or holiday songs.
  • Consider doing group activities. Weissberger leads drum circles for people with Alzheimer’s disease, since rhythm is fairly innate and participants can drum together.

If music students need resources, fake books are a good option. They offer easy-to-play songs from the movies, Broadway, jazz and more. There also are numerous educational books that provide more information that can help, and there are compositions for students about Alzheimer’s, dementia, and memory. These works can help raise awareness about the problem and enable students to empathize with those it affects.

He retained his ability to play music even as Alzheimer’s disease made him forget his wife had died.

Taking It a Step Further

In addition to these basic steps, there are some older adults with dementia who can do more with music than we may think they can. Weissberger said he has one client with dementia who enjoys composition. He helped her write some of her approximately 30 songs, including a number of pieces that she was able to memorize through repetition.

Though her health has declined and she doesn’t write much now, she can still sing these pieces and requests them during sessions. Weissberger says these kinds of touching experiences happen all the time with his clients.

A number of professional musicians have even been able to take it further and have shown that musical ability can be retained as the mind fades. Country music star Glen Campbell lost his ability to remember lyrics as his Alzheimer’s disease progressed, but he could still do long guitar solos.

And then there was pianist Bert Rose. He retained his ability to play music even as Alzheimer’s disease made him forget his wife had died. On many days, he played the piano in the lobby at his assisted living center. The center said he played so well that a number of guests thought he was being paid to entertain the residents.

During a 2015 visit to the center before he died, his daughter Nancy Berg shared with the Chicago Tribune both the joys and sorrows of watching her father decline from Alzheimer’s disease.

“It’s just so heartbreaking,” she said. “Music is the only thing he has left.”

To educate students about Alzheimer’s disease and consider ways to help, view:

To see what inspired so many viewers, watch the viral clip from Alive Inside. For more information about music therapy or to find a music therapist in your area, visit Berko Music Therapy or musictherapy.org.


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Mary Rogelstad
Mary Rogelstad joined Pepper in 2018 as the company’s Marketing Content Coordinator. Previously she worked as a journalist in the international media and as a communications specialist at various nonprofits. In her free time, Mary has enjoyed singing in various choral groups and performing in musical theater.

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