Using Songs to Reach Loved Ones with Dementia


This is part of our dementia series for caregivers who are dealing with altered cognitive states in their loved one. Keep checking back to for more content on this important (and often difficult) subject. Have ideas for topics you'd like covered? Email and let us know. 

There's been some buzz about a recent research study out of George Mason University that used music to boost the brain function of people with Alzheimers in assisted living facilities.

The study took place over a month period and found that the mental performance of patients who took part in a group singing activity was improved. The control group, who just listened to music sessions and did not participate did not demonstrate this same improvement.

Jane Flinn, the neuroscientist who was the principle investigator on the study explained "Even when people are in the fairly advanced stages of dementia, when it is so advanced they are in a secure ward, singing sessions were still helpful. The message is: don't give up on these people. You need to be doing things that engage them, and singing is cheap, easy and engaging,"

How can caregivers apply this to a family member who lives at home?

1. Hold family sing alongs.

This doesn't mean you have to rent a piano, corral the kids, your spouse, and the neighbors into hanging out in your living room and joining in, unless that's something you want to do.

But perhaps there is someone in the family who likes singing and would love to do this? Especially if you have a pre-schooler or young school age kid who likes to sing the same song over and over and over get the picture, you're totally set. The study used show tunes such as songs from the Sound of Music, Oklahoma, The Wizard of Oz and Pinocchio because it was thought these would be most familiar to the patients.

Showtunes can be a good place to start, but you can incorporate any music that you know might have been relevant to

2. Give the gift of music

If your loved one is still able to converse ask about their music preferences, especially songs they liked from their youth and young adult days. You might try questions like:

  • What song did you first dance to?
  • What song played at your graduation?
  • Do you remember what kind of music was played at the prom? 
  • What song played at your wedding?

Then, make playlists of these songs (or have the nearest millennial do it for you) and have them available however it is most convenient for your loved one to listen to music. If you make a long enough playlist, it can be be something that plays throughout the day, maybe with a repeat or two.  If the only available listening device is a iphone or itouch, you find speakers that will amplify the song without losing much quality and will probably be much less intrusive to your loved one than using headphones.

3. Ask your loved one about music preferences and incorporate those into daily life

Most cable music stations have a a showtunes station as well as stations featuring music from different decades, often start with the 1940s and 1950s. You can also use appropriate spotify or Pandora stations as well.

4, Incorporate singing into regular family life

If you usually pray or engage in some other kind of religious observance, perhaps that same observance could be sung instead? For example, some families say a prayer of thanks before a meal; this could certainly be sung instead, creating a special family tradition and further including your loved one with Alzheimer's.

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