Music Therapy Activities for Alzheimer's Patients in San Francisco: A Caregiver's Guide

So much of the art that permeates this country comes from California, from its rich soils and endless vistas. It’s a land of relentless creativity in art, literature, film, and, of course, music. California outsized role in creating American culture makes the galloping prevalence of Alzheimer’s in the state seem particularly cruel.

Music Therapy Activities for Alzheimer's PatientsSo much of the art that permeates this country comes from California, from its rich soils and endless vistas. It’s a land of relentless creativity in art, literature, film, and, of course, music. California outsized role in creating American culture makes the galloping prevalence of Alzheimer’s in the state seem particularly cruel.
But it might be that same art, particularly music, that can help find a way to mitigate the impact of Alzheimer’s disease by restoring memory and creating new growth from roots long thought to be dead. Music therapy for Alzheimer’s patients in San Francisco and the Bay Area can use some of this amazing culture to bring people back, even if only for a few moments, from the devastating shadow lands of this disease.
There are songs inside of us. Music therapy can bring them out. For caregivers of older adults beginning to suffer from Alzheimer’s, looking into this both radical and simple therapy could be the greatest gift you give your loved one. You’re giving them the gift of self.

Alzheimer’s in America

More than 500,000 people in California suffer from Alzheimer’s making up nearly 10% of the nation’s total. Of the 5.2 million people with the disease, all except for 200,000 are over the age of 65 (though there could be hundreds of thousands of undiagnosed cases of early-onset Alzheimer’s, which is its own tragedy).
Right now, 13% of adults over 65 have Alzheimer’s, and that number swells to 50% after the age of 85. These figures are going to continue to grow as the Baby Boomer generation ages. Someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s every 71 seconds in America. That will move to 33 seconds by 2050.
There is still no cure for this disease that has impacted people you know. There’s no cutoff, no target. As Gene Wilder showed, it can attack even the most creative and lively people. But that very creativity may help to lessen its terrible weight.

How Music Therapy Benefits Alzheimer’s Patients

We already know how important music can be to older adults. We’ve encouraged caregivers to promote moving to music, an activity that stimulates the mind and the rest of the body. It is that stimulation, the connection between mind and body, that is one of the reasons why music therapy for Alzheimer’s patients is so promising.
Music seems to have a way to reach deep into people with neurological impairments. There is something about the mathematics of rhythm that stimulates the brain and awakens dormant areas. Music therapy has been shown to:

  • Improve the mood of patients with dementia
  • Boost cognitive skills (which is why learning an instrument can be a great idea for older adults)
  • Reduce the need for anti-psychotic drugs
  • “Wake” people

It is the last that might be the most seemingly miraculous. Doctors and family members have reported that playing memory-filled music can actually bring someone back while they are listening. The music of their younger years can awaken a personality that was long dormant. It is only temporary, but there is research being done to see if music can consistently repair synapses that hadn’t been connecting.
Science aside, there is a beautiful sweetness to seeing people reclaim their personalities. This clip of Henry, who couldn’t recognize family or friends, suddenly waking up and telling stories when listening to his favorite music is one of the most heartwarming things you’ve ever seen. It isn’t just about mood.  He remembers lyrics. He remembers names and places. He remembers stories from his youth. He remembers who he is.
As the great neurobiologist Oliver Sacks said of dementia patients, “Music is no luxury to them, but a necessity, and it can have a power beyond anything else to restore them to themselves, and to others, at least for a while.”

Music Activities in the Bay Area

If you are a caregiver, music therapy is something to look into. We aren’t recommending therapy or any particular therapist, but finding out more is a great first step. But music is everywhere, and you can listen to and enjoy it outside of a therapy setting. Here are some Bay Area activities.

  • San Francisco Opera: Classic music fans? San Francisco is one of the great areas for it. Don Giovanni might bring back memories of operas from the past.
  • Jazz on the Plazz: Held every Wednesday between June 21st and August 23rd in the Los Gatos Town Plaza, this free weekly minifest offers classic jazz and cool new sounds, a stroll through music.
  • Stern Grove Festival: Every Sunday at 2:00 PM from June 25th to August 27th at Stern Grove, this free show brings acts like the legendary Mavis Staples.
  • Music and Market Series: Now through September, every Thursday at 6:30 PM, Santos Plaza in Concord will host a truly eclectic lineup of bands, from old-timey Americana to polka—something for everyone.  
  • Summer of Love concert: Free on June 21st in Golden Gate Park, this will help boomers remember the Summer of ‘67, and the great music of that era. A commemoration of the spirit of California and music.

Nearly every town in the Bay Area has some sort of music fest, and there are more than 100 free ones this year. This gives caregivers a staggering amount of opportunities to see how music can improve the lives of their loved ones and themselves. You don’t even need a festival. A record player or iPod will do just fine.
The point is to explore. See if there is music that can improve your aging loved one’s mood or even bring them back for a few minutes. Because it is an exploration. Music therapy for Alzheimer’s patients is a journey back from darkened lands. It is a journey to find themselves. That’s the sweetest and most plaintive tune of all.
At Institute on Aging, we run programs and services to help older adults live their lives to the fullest with dignity and independence. Connect with us today to learn more about our programs for seniors, their loved ones, and caregivers.

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Three and a half years ago, Maggie Fang started her journey as an Assessment Specialist in the Support at Home Program at IOA. Her excellent people skills enabled her to manage a caseload of older adults and individuals with disabilities, helping them receive homecare to age in place. Maggie was selected to pioneer the Temporary Respite Caregiver Support program, and we are delighted to have such a skilled and dedicated individual leading our newest program at IOA. Thank you, Maggie, for your exceptional work! 

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