Debbie specializes in facilitating Art, Color Therapy and Rhythms of the Heart Drumming for Caregivers and Support Groups. 

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The MAGIC of Music for People with Alzheimer's & all forms of Dementia

 The Power of Music and Old Photos

By Debbie Nuccio Durrough

Mama and Dementia. 

The video above is a snip from a much longer video that I created to connect with Mama and enter her world of dementia.

The music and old photos in this video triggered many moments of clarity, laughter, and new stories from mama.        

Using music and old photos with a loved one diagnosed with Alzheimer's or any form of Dementia is a powerful tool, as it engages

the brain and invites moments of clarity.

The process is fairly easy and fun!  


The first step is to select what I call "trigger"music.  In other words, any song that has sentimental and/or special meaning to your loved one. When selecting trigger songs for your loved one, ALWAYS select the kind of music that they like, such as: songs from their childhood or teen years, or songs  that have sentimental or special meaning such as:  a song their mother would sing to them, a song they would sing to their children/grandchildren, ethnic heritage music, "their song"with the love of their life, church songs, hymns, gospel, country music (if they loved country music), and even show tunes if they loved going to the theater. 

If you do not know what type of music they enjoyed, experiment with the top hits from their generation and beyond (i.e the 40's, 50's, 60's,  70's, etc).  Selecting the right trigger song will create the best opportunities for moments of clarity with your loved one. 

Using Mama's profile as an example:  One of Mama's trigger songs is "I Can't Help Falling In Love With You" by Elvis or Andrea Bocelli.  Mama loved to listed to both versions.  She also had a beautiful voice and she would sing this song to Daddy at family gatherings, celebrations and events.  This was her signature song and thus the perfect "trigger song."   

 The second step is to select old photos that represents their story.  Gather photos from their past (as far back as you can go).  Selecting photos that showcase their talents or what they liked to do and/or photos of special occasions (i.e. weddings, birthdays, vacations etc.).  The photos I selected in this video were chosen to "mirror"memories of Mama dancing with the love of her life, as my parents loved to dance, and other photos that included the dresses she made, as she was also a talented seamstress.  

Example:  In Mama's video you'll see photos of Mama and Daddy dancing, and photos of Mama wearing some of the dresses she created.  The longer version of the video also included family vacations, celebrations and photos of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

 The third step is to create a video/slide show using the selected photos and include their "trigger songs."  Or, you can place the selected photos in a photo album that can be viewed together while listening to their "trigger songs."  I started out with a photo album filled of photos from Mama's childhood through present time and we would view the photos together while listening to Mama's music (her "trigger" songs). The first time I played the video for mama I asked her if she knew any of the people in the video while pointing to her and daddy.  She replied, "No, but they are beautiful." I played the video again and repeated the question and this time she pointed at their wedding photo and said, "That's the love of my life."  She paused, and said, " I love that man."     

The last step is to view it together.  Pausing to give them time to express words, feelings and emotions about the story in the photos.  Watch for facial expressions.  During the first viewing Mama would look at a photo and then look up at me and smile.  At times her expressions said more than words. 

You may need to view the photos with their "trigger songs" a couple times before you get a response.  Be patient and if they are not responding with words or emotions during the second viewing, you can tell the story for them.  Avoid using words or phrases like, "remember" or "do you remember."  Instead, use phrases such as:  "Wow, you look so beautiful here."  "I love that dress you made,"  "look how young you and your brother are in this photo," or "you and Daddy sure loved to dance and you were great." 

FYI:  I used an app called Slide X to make the video.  Download the app, take photos of your selected photos and then follow the instructions on how to make the slide show video on your phone.     


Additional Tips for Caregivers

"The gift of music isn't necessarily about what music does for us...It's about what music undoes for us" ~ Joan Boryseenko

Music can calm, comfort, improve mood swings, engage, energize and/or excite... 

The next time you are feeling overwhelmed or stressed, use the power of music to help you release stress and restore peace and balance to your body mind and spirit.  Simply select a piece of music that you enjoy or gives you comfort (soothing).  One of my favorites is "Let It Be" by Paul McCartney or the Aretha Franklin recording.  The song "Let It Be," reminds me to "let go" and trust that everything will be alright ("let go and let God).  "Let It Be" is also my pick as an anthem for all caregivers or for anyone that finds it hard to say "no." 

Consider welcoming each new day with a 3-minute personal power song and dance.  I enjoy moving and setting the mood for my day with one of the following songs: “Happy” by Pharrell Williams, “I Love Music” by the O’Jays, “MMMBop” by Hanson, or “Sir Duke” by Stevie Wonder.  If you want to engage your children and grandchildren to “move and groove” with you, select a recent pop song that they enjoy that has a hip beat. A few years ago my granddaughters came to life when I put on Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” and Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass."  We were movin' and groovin' and the synergy we created was most empowering.  I even learned a new dance move with my hands that reinforces shaking off stress and everything else that I wanted to “shake off.” When selecting your music magic power song, select a song that you enjoy, and as Peaches and Herb sing..."Shake Your Grove Thing."

If you are a caregiver for someone with a debilitating disease such as Alzheimer's, all forms of Dementia, Parkinson's etc., music can be used to calm, engage, energize, and/or shift your loved one's mood. 

Experiment with using the music THEY  love when you are experiences challenges such as transferring from bed to chair or shower.   Make up little songs or sings songs that they know and enjoy.  Just make sure that the music mirrors the needed mood change and/or upcoming activity.  Example:  Whenever Mama needed a boost of energy I would play the song, "In The Mood" for her.  One of my favorite music memories with mama was watching her reaction to this song.  She would make a fist with both hands and while shaking both of her tight fists and said, "Oh, I just LOVE this music." She had the same reaction with Louis Prima music too.  I am very grateful for Louis Prima music and all of the traditional Italian songs (i.e. 'O sole mio, Che la luna, etc.), as the music allowed me to enter Mama's world and distract her out of the Sun-Downers Zone.

The number one most powerful instrument for facilitating the release of stress is your own voice.    It is most important for caregivers to find ways to release their stress.  So sing like nobody is listening or hum.  Singing and humming has many health Benefits such as: boosts the immune system, improves breathing, encourages creativity, helps shift the mood and calms Alzheimer’s patients.  I have worked with Alzheimer’s patients that rarely speak, but will sing song lyrics from their past while participating in a sing along. As a reminder, I'll sing the song "Sing," the version recorded by the Carpenters and invite you to do the same:


Sing, sing a song
Sing out loud
Sing out strong
Sing of good things not bad
Sing of happy not sad.

Sing, sing a song
Make it simple to last
Your whole life long
Don't worry that it's not
Good enough for anyone
Else to hear
Just sing, sing a song.

Sing, sing a song
Let the world sing along
Sing of love there could be
Sing for you and for me.

Sing, sing a song
Make it simple to last
Your whole life long
Don't worry that it's not
Good enough for anyone
Else to hear
Just sing, sing a song

Sing lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing GroupI often sing a song by the Carpenters called "Sing."