Listening to Their Music

How to Enhance Memory and Quality of Life with Their Music

I’ve been researching music and memory. In particular I wanted to know why am I suddenly transported into my childhood kitchen when my husband plays a classic country song – a style of music that really doesn’t appeal to me? This is my mother’s music. A George Jones hit could bring back the smell of bacon, eggs, and coffee. My mom’s humming returns. I can ‘hear’ the sounds of food frying and paper bags crinkling as she prepared our sack lunches for school as well as a hearty country breakfast. If listening to the music from my past could transport me back in time, what would happen if we helped our loved ones listen to their music?

Why is it, too, that some people with dementia who haven’t spoken in weeks, can suddenly sing every word of a hymn or recite the Lord’s Prayer? For answers, I looked to the experts. Teepa Snow has an excellent video on YouTube that explains how those with dementia can still sing and recite. She also explains in the video why the use of ugly words is sometimes prevalent in those with dementia. Take a look HERE, if you’d like to watch. And, check out her organization HERE. She an amazing trailblazer in educating folks about dementia! You won’t regret one minute you spend learning from her.

To sum it up, she shares that language production is often slipping away as a person progresses into dementia. At the same time, though, the rhythm, songs, sayings and poetry, words we don’t say in polite company, and social graces all remain with the condition. (This can sometimes explain why a sibling who lives far away doesn’t ‘see’ the dementia in your parent… The surface language – social chit-chat – remains intact. “Mom sounds fine, ” they say.)

Can music bring back speech?

Let’s use their STRENGTHS to make their lives better. By firing up the right side of the brain by listening to music, we can also enhance that left side a little. What that means is that those who have difficulty speaking can sometimes regain that ability by listening to music for a few minutes. Watch this video or this one to see examples of how this works. Just amazing to see the difference in their ability to speak following the session of listening to music! Music appears to ‘prime the pump’ for conversation.

What to do?

Knowing that listening to music lifts moods, encourages movement and dance, enhances cognition and memory, and gives us a meaningful, purposeful activity to pursue is key. Music can make brighten the day. It can bring a person from despair to hope. Singing can trigger the release of the ‘feel good’ hormone – oxytocin – and help bind us together. So, on to the ‘how to’s…

Use THEIR music, not yours

First, find THEIR music. All the studies about the benefits of music for those with dementia point to the fact that people react better to their preferred music. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Don’t you remember your mom or dad asking you to ‘turn down that noise’ as you rocked out in your bedroom? Haven’t you heard music that irked you – that made your skin crawl?

To find THEIR preferred music, we need to do a little math and a little searching the internet. Most people prefer music they heard between the ages of 10 and 30. So someone born in the late 1930’s would prefer music from the late 1940’s to the late 1960’s.

What if I don’t know my person’s music taste?

There are many styles of music that were popular from the 1940s to 1960s. What if you don’t know that much about your loved one? Or, what if you are a care partner and did not know your person very well before you started helping them?

To find their music, ask them! Keep in mind that many in this generation attended church. Don’t forget to look for hymns or spiritual songs often sung at services. If your person can’t tell you, look around. Find their records or CDs. See what they have in the collection. Most people buy music for themselves or receive it as gifts from others who know them well.

Find music preferences together….

Additionally, search YouTube or Spotify. Look for the music that may appeal to them. Play a song and watch their reaction. If they seem to ‘light up,’ begin moving along, or start singing, you may have a winner. Then, try other music of the same era and style. Write down your findings or create a playlist for them.

Try other types of music as well. Big Band, Bluegrass, Classical, Salsa, Ballroom music, the sky is the limit! Who knows? You may discover your dad was a ballroom dancer or that your mother knows every word to ‘Sweet Caroline!’

Some lists to try:

Greatest Hits Golden Oldies 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s

Popular Music of the 1950’s and 1960’s

Classic Country 1950’s – 1960’s

Classic Country 1950’s – 1970’s

1960’s Motown, R&B

Big Band music

More Big Band

Lawrence Welk Show

The Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin)

Polka (Frankie Yankovik and the Yanks)

Nat King Cole

These are collections. Sorry for going overboard, but there is so much music available today! Usually, I like to go song by song to discover preferences. After all, I certainly don’t like all the songs of some of my favorite performers. Why would they? Instead, listen together to find singers and songs that they prefer. I do wish you good luck in bringing more music into your world and theirs! Who knows, you may also find a new favorite! Oops! Almost forgot Doris Day!


Try Quilting: A therapeutic activity for memory care

It’s winter here in western Pennsylvania… finally! The rain has been replaced by snow and the chill is in the air. Time to look for projects to be tackled inside. One project that we have been exploring on the memory care unit is quilt making. We have made quilts of paper and of the traditional fabric. These are not difficult or elaborate pieces – merely squares pieced together and tied with thread or yarn. Their ‘cure’ is in their simplicity.

Memory care residents chose blocks and discussed how to arrange them. The handled the fabric, decided which blocks to use, and instructed the facilitator in laying them out. They wanted to use the pink and purple blocks and this was the final layout.

But, I’ve never done that before…

You may say, I’ve never quilted before and neither has my loved one. That doesn’t mean you can’t try! You will gain so much together. The cutting and piecing of fabric is a sensory treat! Touching fabrics of varying textures and weights, using scissors to cut the fabric, laying the squares into a pleasing design, tying the strings to hold the blanket together, and listening to music or talking together… all of these activities engage the senses and promote quality of life for your loved one.

In the ‘old’ days, sewing quilts or ‘haps’ was a necessity. One couldn’t simply run to the store to buy a new blanket when winter approached. Instead, the ladies of yesteryear would cut squares from worn or too-small clothing and sew together blankets for beds and couches. They were not always the most attractive pieces, but they kept the recipients warm! Your loved one may have made one of these or may have watched a beloved grandmother cut pieces and arrange them into a blanket. They may have even quilted beautiful patterns themselves!

It’s all in the process…

So, how to? This does not have to be an expensive project, but it does take time! This could take months, which is a blessing! In this fast-paced world, you have the opportunity to slow down with your loved one and savor the experience yourself!

The ongoing process answers the three human needs : something to love (you and the project), something to do (Make that quilt!), and something to look forward to (routine – write the days/times you will work on it together). This process is also the very definition of a meaningful pastime! Together, you are making something useful. You two may even decide to give your handmade treasures away – another form of ‘therapy.’

Another lap quilt. Squares are 5 x 5. Notice the use of different patterns in the middle. The fabric for these lap quilts is recycled scrubs from professional care workers.

How To Make a Fabric Lap Quilt.

I started to write out the directions for making a quilt and quickly realized that I prefer to use YouTube videos! Maybe you do, too! I found this super wonderful easy video that explains the whole process! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_a2bN7NqoR0&t=498s Professor Pincushion has wonderful, free sewing videos! I’m a big fan.

In the video, she speaks of buying fabrics. You will want to buy the backing and the batting (I prefer synthetic batting over the cotton!), however it might be fun to go through old clothes and recycle them! My cousin makes beautiful knotted quilts from clothing of loved ones who have passed. These special gifts bring back memories of the person through the preferences of what they wore. Cotton blend fabrics work best, though my grandmother used to make them with all sorts of scrap fabric.

She also mentions buying the special quilting rulers, mats, and rotary cutters. (I prefer Fiskars. Check them out on Amazon or Joanne Fabrics.) Though these are a blessing if you are planning on doing the cutting and are in a rush, it could be more therapeutic for your loved one to do the cutting with fabric shears. Safety first, however, so you be the judge as to whether your loved one can still handle them!

If your loved one is capable of cutting, you can trace the blocks on the fabric and allow them to cut them out. Simply make a template from a piece of cardboard. As with any project, please remember that it is the process that’s important, not the finished project! Though it’s nice to have a ‘perfect’ item to give to someone, the key to helping someone with dementia is to enjoy yourselves. Slow down… it doesn’t have to be done yesterday! Enjoy the process and help them to enjoy it, too!

I hope you will try this project! Soon I will introduce a paper quilt project! Also fun, cheap, sensory, and easy!

If you’ve tried this, I’d love to hear from you! Please comment!

The Importance of Giving Back

The very Definition of a Meaningful, Purposeful Activity

One of the things we like to do at the nursing home is to engage the residents  in projects meant to ‘give back’ to others.   We make gifts and edible treats for staff members by following the National Healthcare Observances weeks.

For instance, in May, the residents work on crafts and treats for the nurses. As we work together, we talk about the nurses and how much they help us.  We tell the residents how touched the nurses are when they receive the handmade gifts.  We wrap the gifts, usually in simple paper bags, and a few residents take turns delivering them.

This is a process that normally takes a week or two of one-hour segments.  It doesn’t all happen on the same day.   We may spend a couple of hours making the gift, another hour making the edible treat, another hour wrapping the gifts.

Meeting Sensory Needs

These kind of activities meet a number of needs for the residents.  Their sensory needs are met by the different types of materials used in making the gifts – what they look like, smell like, feel like.  Making food gifts is great sensory therapy! The scents of spices and flavorings, the act of mixing batter, or rolling out pie dough all bring back memories of times when they were caring for their families.

The happy, anticipatory chatter fulfill their auditory needs and their emotions are buoyed by the expectation of the happiness they will soon share.  As we work together,  we talk about how thrilled the nurses will be when they receive the gifts.  The residents often smile, anticipating the warm feelings they will soon be sharing with others.

But, what about the men?  Do they benefit?  Think of how many of these men stood on tippy-toes as children to reach the table and watch their mothers cooking or baking? Perhaps Mother handed him a taste or showed him how to roll the dough ‘just so.’  How many of these grown men are brought back to their grandmother’s kitchen by the scent of the spices and the simple act of watching others engaged in those activities?  Many times the men will join the fun and use that rolling pin or stir the batter.

It is more blessed to give than to receive….

The goal is to fill up on those good feelings and emotions to carry the participants through the day!  Studies have shown that those with dementia may not know what makes them joyful, but the feeling is there and remains for a period of time. (One study can be found here.) Do they remember making the gifts to give away? No. Not usually.  Do they feel good from giving the gifts? Absolutely!  The evidence is in the smiles and the hugs they pass on with the gifts…  and the hugs they receive from the recipients!

Meeting those three basic psychological needs

So why choose to make gifts and give them away as an activity?  This type of engagement is the very definition of a ‘meaningful’ or ‘purposeful’ pastime.  It answers the three basic psychological needs:

something to do (making the gift),

something to love ( thanking those who help us get along, day to day),

and something to hope for(the excitement of making someone’s day by surprising them with an unexpected gift).

Now, it’s your turn.

I encourage you to try this with your loved one.  Choose something that your loved one enjoys doing – baking, sewing, mixing, creating – and find a way for them to give their creations away.  Or, choose a charity to give to and help your loved one prepare the contribution.  For instance, help them create a basket for a basket party fundraiser.  Assist them in creating healthy dog treats for your local shelter.  As you work, talk about giving the items away and how much the gift will be appreciated.  Take your loved one with you to hand out the gift.  Step back and watch as your loved one shines in the glow of appreciation – making a meaningful connection with another person.