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The Gift of Music for the Holidays

In my fifteen years of experience as a therapeutic musician, I have led countless musical sing-along programs for those with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. During these programs, I often witness music’s power to unlock memories. My students remember the melody and lyrics of old familiar songs as well as the life experiences that the music evokes. I find this to be true for all stages of dementia and current research confirms my experience.

One of my students, Edie, is 85 and has mid to late stage Alzheimer’s disease. She rarely speaks, but when I played “Home on the Range” on the piano, she went from sitting quietly to becoming quite animated. Edie shouted, “I had a horse named Buddy.” This type of reaction to familiar music no longer surprises me. Music can bring dramatic behavioral changes, encourages socialization, and improves the overall well being of those with dementia.

Research confirms the benefits music has for dementia patients. It has been reported that singing on a daily basis will raise the brain chemicals melatonin, epinephrine and norepinephrine in our blood levels, thus positively affecting our mental state. Testing of patients with dementia who sing daily shows that these elevated blood chemicals help them to become more active, more cooperative, less agitated and often improves their ability to sleep. Dr. Ardash Kumar with the University of Miami’s School of Medicine, found that music provided lasting benefits to elderly men with Alzheimer’s disease who participated in a music therapy program and sing familiar songs for 30 to 40 minutes a day, five days a week, for a month. Dr. Kumar’s research further found that the music’s behavioral benefits continued for these men for weeks after their participation in this music program had ended.

With the overwhelming evidence of the positive benefits of music and singing, wouldn’t it be wonderful if your loved one could sing every day? There are a variety of ways to bring old favorite music into their lives. Your local public library is a good resource for renting free musical CDs and old movies or operas on DVD that are sure to bring a smile to their faces and words to their lips, as they sing-along with joy and recognition. There are a number of music and sing-along programs on the market that can be purchased through senior product catalogs such as Sea Bay Games, NASCO and S&S Worldwide.

I have always known that music can open hearts. Through my teaching experience, reinforced by recent research, I have seen how it can open minds as well! So, as the holidays approach, consider a musical gift for your loved one. I know you will be happy you did, as it will be beneficial and enjoyable for them, and it just may give you some well deserved respite time.

© 2010 Barbara Jacobs

Barbara Jacobs, M.S., is a therapeutic musician who has taught music classes at long-term care facilities for the past fifteen years and has developed three sing-along DVD programs. Learn more at www.FrontRowSeatVideos.com.