One in three seniors will die of Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia this year—and those numbers are increasing. Between 2000 and 2019, deaths from heart disease increased by 7%. In that time, deaths from Alzheimer’s disease increased 145%. Knowing that dementia—and Alzheimer’s disease especially—have become so common in today’s aging population, we spoke to Tammy Willis MT-BC, LPMT, a music therapist who specializes in geriatric care, about how we can help improve or maintain quality of life for our loved ones dealing with these diagnoses.
What is dementia?
Dementia is an umbrella term for a group of symptoms including severe decline in memory, reasoning, or other thinking skills. It is not a normal part of aging. Alzheimer’s disease is a specific brain disease that causes 60-80% of dementia cases.
When a loved one has dementia, what can help?
There are many simple tips that can be very effective in helping and supporting people with dementia. “One of the most important things is to approach someone with dementia in a slow and reassuring way. A smile and a soft, warm voice will go a long way,” Willis says. It often starts with trial and error. “Find something that they connect with,” she says. “You may have to be a bit of a detective in the beginning, to find what resonates with them and helps them feel calm, happy, and in the moment.”
Connecting through music
Often, people with any stage of dementia can still connect with music. Music is one of the most powerful forms of therapy, Willis says. It lifts peoples’ spirits, moods, and energy levels, but the impact goes deeper too. It can lower heart rate and blood pressure, helping someone who is confused or anxious to relax. “Because it uses both sides of the brain, it can affect people in every way,” she says. “Cognitively—thinking of the band or song name or lyrics; physically—connecting with the rhythm and dancing, tapping a foot, or snapping a finger; socially—connecting them with others enjoying music together; and emotionally—connecting them to their past and associated memories and feelings.” These connections, born of music and music therapy, tend to be one of the last mental faculties people with dementia lose. “Research shows people with dementia connect most to music they grew up with. That is a great place to start,” Willis says.
Keep it moving
One of the benefits of music is the way it inspires people to move their bodies. Any kind of movement or exercise is important for all people, but especially those with dementia. Movement—whether it is walking, swimming, lifting light weights, practicing tai chi, or something else—helps keep up strength and balance, decreasing fall risk and increasing independence.
You might also enlist your loved one in common chores or ask them to run errands with you. It is important to help your loved one stay active and engaged in meaningful tasks they are capable of. “It is really beneficial to do things with your loved one rather than for them as much as possible for as long as possible,” Willis says.
Continue to talk to your loved one, even as their capacity to engage in a way you are used to changes. “Short-term memory tends to go before long-term memory,” Willis says. “Reminisce with your loved one; dig up old memories, look at pictures and enjoy those stories together while you still can.”
Use a calm and friendly voice tone. Talk slowly and clearly; keep it simple and short. “If someone is asking the same question 20 times in 10 minutes, try to distract them from that persistent thought,” Willis advises. Once you’ve answered the questions, change the subject, and engage them in something else. “Remember, their brain is not working the way it once did. Peoples’ processing slows down as the disease progresses, but they still enjoy your company,” she says.
Helping people with dementia remain socially connected is critical in keeping them engaged and positive. “That’s why most therapy in the Sheppard Pratt Geriatric Unit is done in groups. Groups provide our patients with meaningful socialization and connection,” Willis says. “They realize they are not alone in what they are experiencing. Groups also provide distraction and help our patients stay in the moment, where they can thrive.” Depression and anxiety can be serious problems in this population too, Willis says. Your loved one may be feeling ashamed of their decline and want to hide or isolate—but that isolation will often cause the disease to progress more quickly.
Even after someone loses the ability to speak coherently, they can often still read and process, Willis says. Put things in writing and use pictures and visuals to communicate. Just because it becomes more difficult doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
Take care of yourself
And finally, be patient with yourself. Ask for help; take breaks; talk to a therapist; find a support group with other people in similar circumstances. “This is hard, emotionally challenging work,” Willis says. “But you are doing an incredible service for your loved one.” You are making the most of the time you have with them—and that is priceless.