5 Ways Dementia Caregivers Can Use Personalized Music

Personalized music is an invaluable resource for caregivers. Even if you are caring for a person that is not normally interested in music, that does not mean that he or she will not be impacted by hearing a familiar tune.

Listening to specific songs help people with dementia feel like themselves, and in turn, the music helps caregivers build emotional trust and nurture cooperation. Learning how to incorporate personalized music into daily activities can make you a more successful caregiver. Here are five ways how:

1. Using Personalized Music to Facilitate Reminiscing

In a 2009 study from the University of California, researchers mapped the brain while people who listened to music and found that specific regions linked to autobiographical memories and emotions are activated by familiar music. The hub that music activated is located in the medial prefrontal cortex region, one of the last areas of the brain to atrophy over the course of Alzheimer's disease.

The study’s author, Petr Janata, associate professor of psychology at UC Davis' Center for Mind and Brain author explains how this phenomenon can help people with Alzheimer’s recall familiar memories.

"What seems to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head. It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person's face in your mind's eye."

When people make the connection between a sound and a memory, they gain confidence and a stronger sense of identity.

Michael’s grandmother is from Poland, and listening to her favorite tunes with Polish lyrics, often results in her chatting about memories from her past.


2. Using Personalized Music to Trigger a Routine

Certain songs evoke a consistent response. As a caregiver, you can use these innate responses to music to help with activities of daily living.

For example, an upbeat dance song with quick tempos might result in movement, such as arm swinging or toe tapping. As a caregiver, you might use this type of music while helping a person get ready in the morning. Other songs, such as ballads, might have calming effects and might be useful as part of a nighttime routine.

Joyce plays an upbeat southern hymn every morning. It helps Dorthy get moving and started with her morning routine.

Joyce plays an upbeat southern hymn every morning. It helps Dorthy get moving and started with her morning routine.

3. Using Personalized Music to Prepare for Potentially Stressful Situations

Social outings, doctor visits and other unfamiliar situations can be incredibly stressful for people with dementia. For many, especially those in the latter stages, they experience sensory overload and become easily frustrated. Listening to a person’s favorite music in advanced or even during stressful situations not only has the potential to redirect their attention, but it can also lift their mood and decrease the liklihood of agitation.

Jane plays her mom’s favorite songs on the way to doctor’s appointments. 

Jane plays her mom’s favorite songs on the way to doctor’s appointments. 

4. Combining Personalized Music with Sensory Engagement

In addition to personalized music, other forms of sensory stimulation have been shown to decrease agitation and restlessness in people with dementia. By combining a person’s favorite music with images, videos, aromas, tactile objects or foods, caregivers can enhance feelings of nostalgia and purpose. Some examples of sensory stimulation activities that can be combined with music include:

  • Aroma therapy or lighting a scented candle
  • Reminiscing with personally meaningful images
  • Enjoying a nostalgic or traditional meal


5. Combining Personalized Music with Song and Dance

Research also shows that singing and dancing can enhance the therapeutic benefits of music. Get creative to facilitate song and dance:

  • Hold hands and tap or swing along to the beat
  • Participate in group singing activities at church or other communities get togethers
  • Print out lyrics or use an app to facilitate singing

Generation Connect helps families and care organizations use digital music, photos, stories and apps to personalize dementia activities.

Michael Potteiger