Alzheimer’s, dementia & the healing power of music

*Editor’s note, the 2020 Discovery Alzheimer’s Regional Conference has been rescheduled to June 25, 2020. Please see note below article. 

Cheryl Hodge, BFA, is an author and award-winning performer. Her first professional gig was when she was 16 years old. She spent time touring the US and Europe, taught in the vocal department for eight years at Berklee College of Music in Boston and headed the Vocal Department at Selkirk College in Nelson, B.C. for 21 years. Cheryl now lives in Bellingham and works with people with dementia in a Dementia Singalong Therapy program that she founded. She will be presenting on “Alzheimer’s, Dementia & The Healing Power of Music: Singalong Therapy” at the Discovery Alzheimer’s Regional Conference for healthcare professionals on June 25, 2020* 

“My mother made me promise her when I was 16 years old that, when all was said and done and I was retired, I would work with the elderly,” Cheryl said. “One day, just after I retired, a professor from Western Washington University approached me about working with his wife for one hour a week doing singalongs with her. I accepted. When I found out how effective my warm-ups and cue techniques were in helping her, I knew I was onto something.” 

When Cheryl began working with the woman, who was living with Alzheimer’s disease, she had a very difficult time communicating. Cheryl watched the woman begin to open up and become more social as her Singalong Therapy progressed. The woman’s husband was thrilled. “He sent me a letter thanking me for giving him his wife back!” 

So why do people have such a strong bond with music? “Singing revives musical memories and connects at least seven different areas of the brain,” said Cheryl. “The emotional attachments begin when we are infants and people sing lullabies to us. When we are six years old, most of us learn patriotic songs like “God Bless America,” “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful.” Almost everyone can sing those songs by heart. When we get married, we develop memories associated with the music for that occasion, and we rarely forget that first song or the song that we shared with our partners. When we went to church as kids, we developed an attachment to certain hymns, like “How Great Thou Art.” As teens, we developed attachments to our favorite bands. We never forget those musical attachments. They bring up important, life-changing moments.” 

When she is working with people with Alzheimer’s and other dementia, Cheryl finds that many people have feelings of detachment or depression. “Besides activating parts of the brain, singing can create a feeling of being uplifted through socialization. Also, there are natural rises in endorphin levels when singing; especially when activating high notes in the sinus cavities.” 

While teaching Singalong Therapy can require training, Cheryl notes that there are things caregivers can do with their loved ones to incorporate aspects of music therapy into their every-day routines. “Start by getting a songlist and learning old songs,” she said. 

The Alzheimer’s Association has tips for both music and art therapy online. These tips include: 

  • Identifying music that’s familiar and enjoyable to the person; if possible, let the person choose the music.
  • Choose a source of music that isn’t interrupted by commercials, which can cause confusion.
  • Use music to create the mood you want. For example, a tranquil piece of music can help create a calm environment, while a faster-paced song from someone’s childhood may boost spirit and evoke happy memories.
  • Encourage movement (clapping, dancing) to add to the enjoyment.

To learn more about Cheryl’s Dementia Singalong Therapy Program, and to view a pre-made song list, visit her website at:

Cheryl Hodge will be presenting at Discovery Alzheimer’s Regional Conference for healthcare professionals. The Discovery Alzheimer’s Regional Conference has been rescheduled for Thursday, June 25, 2020. We’re working diligently to ensure the event is very similar to what we had originally planned, and will continue to update you with new information as it becomes available. We are very glad we were able to reschedule this event and are hopeful you will be able to join us!

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One thought on “Alzheimer’s, dementia & the healing power of music

  1. Thank you for your gift to those with Alzheimer’s. I was always amazed that my mom could remember so many songs when there was no memory of anything else. Two weeks before she died she recalled an old hymn I hadn’t heard for years that ended up being such a comfort, as she left this earth and went to heaven.
    Karen S.

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