Music connects Alzheimer's patient and caregiver

NEWS // May 25, 2016

Sharing Music Helps Spark Positive Emotions in People With Alzheimer’s

The first song we sang in kindergarten, the music we danced to in high school, the lyrics we hummed along with as young adults – why do these memories hold such a special, unique and warm feeling?

Now, we are learning that memories associated with music can help unlock the minds of people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and create an uplifting atmosphere of positive emotion and caring.

In San Diego County, as many as 60,000 people are estimated to suffer from Alzheimer’s, a disease in which a person’s memory and cognitive ability erodes insidiously. This in turn impacts hundreds of thousands more family and friends, and those who care for those afflicted. There are many services available, and the County, along with partner agencies, is providing support for family caregivers while exploring avenues to help find a cure and enhance patient care.

One key service is respite, an intervention where a family caregiver is given a break to care for themselves. Legacy Corps San Diego provides this service through volunteers in national service. Recently, Legacy Corps respite volunteers were trained to use music to connect with those they are helping with some very encouraging results.

Volunteer Patty Diaz began singing along with traditional Spanish songs as she spent time with “Fred” (not his real name), who has Alzheimer’s and generally no longer speaks. She soon found that Fred knew the words to the songs and would smile and sing along. Apparently, while in the armed services years ago, he lived in a Spanish-speaking country and learned many traditional songs. His wife was very happy to see her husband still able to be engaged and relate to his visitor. And she was surprised; now realizing her husband knew another language.

Volunteer Andrew Thai brought his laptop when visiting “Bob”, who is 94 and in the later stages of Alzheimer’s disease. They both share the same Vietnamese cultural background, so Andrew experimented by playing different videos from Asian-themed shows. He quickly was able to read Bob’s facial expressions when he saw and heard familiar, traditional songs on the videos. The music has become a favorite part of their time together, in which they share a common bond.

The Legacy Corps “Playlist Project” was inspired by a presentation given by CSU San Marcos student Sean Griser at the 2015 Vital Aging Conference, a Live Well San Diego event. Mr. Griser and Lisa Lipsey of Sunshine Care worked together compiling music playlists for residents of dementia-care assisted living facilities. As with the Legacy Corps program, Griser and Lipsey discovered that sharing music almost invariably sparked strong, positive emotions in people suffering from Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

When options become limited, it is so important to know there are intuitive, creative ways to continue to “Live Well” across the lifespan, and even overcome the challenges of disease. Legacy Corps, an AmeriCorps project, provides free companionship respite for caregivers in veteran and military families. To find out more about the Family Caregiver Support program or Legacy Corps volunteer opportunities, please contact Marty Dare at or (858) 505-6300.