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Music Enriches Lives of People With Dementia

Walk into The Gardens at Barry Road on a given day and you may hear a gospel singer, a bell choir concert, a sing-along of old?time favorites or the sweet sounds of a rhythm band.

The creations are part of the music therapy program offered at The Gardens at Barry Road, a Bethesda senior living community providing assisted living and memory care. The memory care community includes people with Alzheimer’s and other dementia who are still high-functioning and active adults.

“Music therapy can help people reach their cognitive, physical, emotional and spiritual goals,” says Sara Meinking, director of the memory care team. “Music brings out those nuggets of an individual that can keep families engaged and connected.”

Singing, dancing, movement and playing musical instruments can help trigger memories, sharpen articulation, enhance focus, improve balance, decrease wandering and relieve stress—all things that allow residents with dementia to more fully enjoy life.

“We offer a homelike environment with private and semi-private apartments where residents and families feel comfortable. Residents bring their own furniture. It’s a familiar place with 24-hour supervision,” says Abigail Lancaster, the marketing director.

Specialized memory care services include exercise, art, music therapy and social activities that keep residents physically and cognitively engaged throughout the day.


Meinking, who also has a degree in music therapy, leads the 15-member bell choir, which held its first concert last Christmas. Playing in the choir requires many skills, such as patiently waiting for cues to play, hitting the right tone and working as a team.

“It’s pretty amazing. We have some residents who have short attention spans and they can sit for 45 minutes with the bell choir and be spot on. They never miss,” she says. “Other residents who are prone to wandering will sit in the audience the entire time.”

Sing-alongs can help with articulation and sentence structure, says Meinking, who estimates that 60 percent of the residents can’t vocalize beyond one or two words. “But they can remember and sing all the words of a song from the 1920s,” she says. One sing-along of patriotic tunes and songs such as “I’m going to sit right down and write myself a letter” prompted a resident to suggest writing letters to American armed forces.

One of the greatest benefits of music is relaxation. Residents who may become anxious during the day can use iPods and headphones to listen to music. “It’s a form of relaxation,” says Meinking. “They can focus on the music rather than wandering.”

Music also helps families stay connected with seniors and handle the stress of seeing loved ones as the disease progresses. “Dementia is an issue that affects the person, as well as the entire family,” says Lancaster. “Music can bring families together.”

One son, for example, makes weekly visits to The Gardens at Barry Road to sing gospel songs with his mother and her memory care neighbors. “Our residents love the gospel music,” says Meinking. “It’s a spiritual place they can go to; it moves them.”

Another female resident, who is often unresponsive, found her memories triggered when she encouraged her children to sing the 1939 classic “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)” made famous by Glenn Miller and the Andrews Sisters. The visiting daughter turned to her mom, “You remember this song, don’t you?”

“Yes I do,” mom replied, with a laugh.