Connecting through music

If you have a loved one with dementia, consider this


ONLINE — Music therapist Tim Doak leads a free online program offered by the Alzheimer’s Association Hudson Valley chapter for people with dementia and their loved ones. It’s called “Something for Alz: Musical Moments.”

“It’s completely remote, and what the goal of the group is to provide music experiences with dementia and Alzheimer’s and their loved ones—whether it’s their spouse, their child or a caregiver,” he said. “It’s a space for them to create connection together and have experiences with music.” 

He said he generally starts the group off with songs that help him get to know the participants.

“I use some songs that are from generic eras, really popular songs from various decades. I’m also asking, ‘What are some of your favorite songs? What are some of your favorite things to do?’ That develops into a conversation.” 

Participants can share their wedding songs or other tunes connected to special times in their lives. Doak said they also sometimes do themed sessions, such as in the summer focusing on songs by the Beach Boys, or songs with summer references, such as “Summer Loving,” which then can lead to various activities ranging from singing to light exercise or conversation.

“I gather songs that are meaningful or are favorites or are significant to everybody, and I then intertwine those songs into various experiences. It can be that we’re singing, we’re moving around, or we’re talking about the songs and why they are significant. I ask them, ‘What does this song remind you about?’ ”

He said that often when he brings in songs, stories arise that can be shared with the group. The music and memories can also help caregivers have meaningful interactions with their loved ones that can be very difficult when someone has Alzheimer’s or another dementia.

Another activity he does with the group is lyric substitution.

“We come together; we do some songwriting. I do some modified lyric substitution. One of the songs that is kind of the go-to is from ‘The King and I,’ ‘Getting to Know You,’ and I substitute various words and lyrics for them to put in their favorite things. They can tell their preferences from the song itself. It’s creating uniqueness; it’s creating a unique experience for them. It turns a song that’s familiar to them into their own.” 

Doak said music continues to move people with dementia even as other forms of communication become harder for them.

“Music is not centrally located in one area of the brain. Music is all over the brain,” he said.
“With the neural pathways that we can create with music, we can access some of their long-term memories. Music is one of the ways we can do that very effectively.”

Doak said he first started doing his Something for Alz group at the beginning of the pandemic, and has always done it remotely. He thinks the online format is preferable to an in-person format because it makes it easier for people to participate.

“One of the benefits of it being virtual is that people can be at home. They don’t have to get their loved one ready, get into the car or go somewhere. Especially in late-stage Alzheimer’s or dementia, that can create some agitation and confusion, so why not do an experience in the comfort of your home, where the loved one is comfortable and the caregiver doesn’t have to get them ready? I often have participants having their morning coffee.”

He said the virtual format also enables people from all over the Hudson Valley to participate and connect with one another. 

“I see the benefits of it being virtual, just to keep people and home and keep them safe and comfortable. It is also a larger demographic,” Doak said. “We can access people who may not be able to drive to where the location would be. We have people all over the Hudson Valley who can come together and create bonds. We have many people who have attended and now have connections outside of the group.” 

“The biggest thing is that they come away with a sense of being musically together. There is a lot of joy and happiness that comes with it because they are doing something together that’s not necessarily something they would do — something outside of the norm.”

To register for Something for Alz: Musical Moments, call the Alzheimer’s Association at 800/272-3900 or visit Something for Alz..

music, Alzheimer's disease, Tim Doak, Something for Alz


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