Activities, Music, Tips, tools & skills

10 tips to make the most of music in dementia care

I've got the music in me

Music is an extraordinarily powerful dementia care tool; and there are many ways to use it.

Here are 10 “do’s and don’ts” to help you bring music alive for people who live with dementia:

1) Change the channels

Remember music can be enjoyed in a variety of ways. It could be “piped in” to an entire facility, like it is in many public places such as grocery stores, or restaurants. It could be played through TV, radio, headphones, or delivered live in group sessions or one-on-one. Choose the channel that’s most appropriate for the person, the environment, and the situation.

2) Pick and choose

We all have genres of music that we enjoy from classical to country, from opera to hip-hop. Music is individual as well as universal. Find out what kind of music your client, resident, or loved one living with dementia most enjoys and play it for them.

3) Get in the groove

Use music to create the kind of mood that’s appropriate for the time of day, the moment, and the activity. Select something light and upbeat to get people “up and at ‘em” in the morning, and something soothing and quiet before bedtime. Be aware that the volume is also important – music that’s too loud may create more anxiety rather than it reduces.

4) Learn golden oldies

My musical repertoire has expanded exponentially since I became a care partner. I’ve learned tunes I never knew existed and am now able to sing along to Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and many more. Knowing the music your care partner loves is a powerful way to connect.

5) Go beyond the obvious

Music can do much more than calm, comfort and create a better care environment. You can also use it to help take the challenge out of challenging situations and/or encourage people to follow instructions. Here’s an example from music therapist Rachelle Norman of Soundscaping Source:

6) Touch and feel

Listening to beloved music elicits emotions. Hearing a song that was played at a wedding or a funeral might cause us to feel happy or sad. Certain music is associated with different times and events in our lives. Even when the memory of those times and events is gone, the emotion remains. People who live with dementia have feelings just like the rest of us. Remember you will be touching hearts with your choice of music, so it’s important to choose wisely.

7) Don’t be shy!

The only time I ever sang before I became a care partner was in the shower or the car where no one could hear me. I can’t carry a tune in a bucket! But I’ve learned to overcome my shyness for the sake of the pleasure and calming effect that singing together has on my care partner who lives with dementia. In the process, I think my voice may have even improved 🙂

8) Don’t limit possibilities

There’s been a lot of publicity around the movie Alive Inside, and the power of using iPods to deliver music to people with dementia. There is no doubt that a personal playlist, an MP3 player, and a set of headphones can bring hours of joy to someone who lives with dementia. But technology isn’t the be all and end all. Singing doesn’t require an iPod. You don’t need a musical instrument to make music. Use your voice. Clap your hands. Stamp your feet. Create a rhythm. Use a rhyme.

9) Don’t be fooled by silence

Just because a person is no longer verbal, doesn’t mean they cannot still enjoy music. In fact music may be one of the most powerful ways of communicating with someone who has completely lost their language skills. I’ve seen people living with dementia in nursing homes slumped in wheelchairs and apparently asleep begin tapping their feet to the rhythm of favourite songs during group sing-alongs.

10) End on a positive note

They say the sense of hearing is the last to go. Music can be a wonderful way to bring comfort and solace to people during the last weeks, days, and hours of their lives. It can help life end on a positive note despite pain, grief and loss.

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7 thoughts on “10 tips to make the most of music in dementia care”

  1. Some really great tips Susan. I especially like how music can be a social element that helps promote group activities including exercise. I also like how Rachelle taught us to use it to cue and motivate. Thanks for sharing.


  2. This is another wonderful aspect of life that so many people forget about once a person has dementia, Susan.
    Music touches the souls of just about everyone, and to remove this from someones life, would in fact create a massive gap in their life quality and enjoyment.
    I have seen people in the advanced stages of dementia, who haven’t spoken in years, hear some music, and suddenly break out in song, word perfect!
    If they cant sing they start swaying to the music, or tapping the table or clapping their hands.
    The joy it brings cannot be denied.
    When I ran facilities for people living with dementia, music and dance was a daily ritual of fabulous smiles, humming, grabbing of instruments etc. We even had a karaoke machine which was hilarious.
    One night we had a rock n roll evening and hired an old style juke box and all dressed up in 1950’s garb and the 40 residents with dementia were kicking up their heels, swinging their skirts, and dancing together for hours.
    All residents had their choices of music recorded on their care plans to play in their rooms, and we always had music specific to the generation playing in the dining rooms etc.
    It just gives people an extra little kick. That skip in their step. And not only residents, but families and caregivers.
    Thanks for sharing so much with so many.


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