Five Tips for Using Music to Connect

Even as a child, I was using music to connect with my parents. My father was a DJ and my mother enjoyed show tunes and old standards. Those songs often played on our record player and we all enjoyed listening. Later, I used that same music to connect me to my mom and dad during her dementia journey.

Today, I am thrilled to sharing the insights of Mary Sue Wilkinson, Founder of Singing Heart to Heart. Just reading her ideas makes me want to burst into song.

Meaningful Visits: 5 Tips for Using Music to Connect

      By: Mary Sue Wilkinson, Founder of Singing Heart to Heart

Let’s face it. Visiting someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia can be hard. You want to connect. You want to make them happy. But things have changed. I understand. I’ve been there. I found a way to connect that I’d like to share with you. Let me explain.

My father in law Virgil had dementia and eventually lost all language. The only thing he could say was “gaba gaba.” His face would light up when I came to visit. I think he knew I was someone he loved. But after the first hug and shared smile…I would flounder. Carrying on a one sided conversation only went so far. I would leave feeling lonely and discouraged. I bet he felt the same. As much as I hate to admit it, I began to put off visiting him.

Virgil had been a Church of the Brethren minister. He knew and loved all the old southern gospel songs. One day I took my guitar and began to play and sing for him. I figured I could at least entertain him for an hour or so. I started singing an old favorite: I’ll Fly Away. Virgil lifted his head, broke into a huge smile and began to sing along. Every word. Perfect pitch. He even added harmony  From then on music was the focus of our visits.

It didn’t cure Virgil’s dementia. He couldn’t carry on a conversation with me when the song ended. (Although I have seen this happen with others.) But we connected in a meaningful, joyful activity. This was something we could do together. I began to look forward to our visits. I had learned that we could be together without conversation.

Have you ever hesitated to visit someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s because you were afraid you wouldn’t know what to do or what to talk about? Do you feel like you are losing your connection to your loved one or friend?

Music was the “gift” that allowed me to have meaningful, connected, and happy visits with my father-in-law. I hope that it can do the same for you. Here are some suggestions to get you started.

5 tips for using music when you visit someone with dementia

1. When dementia has progressed to the point where conversations are difficult, or even impossible – turn to music. Singing together and/or listening to music can bring happiness regardless of skill or memory. Remember that you are seeking moments of joy and connection. A shared music experience may or may not elicit shared memories. What it will do, is give you a shared experience, in the moment.

2. Bring music with you to your visit – either holiday music or music popular when they were young. Plan ahead and then share it by saying, “I brought some music I thought we could enjoy together.” If the person you are visiting does not have a CD player in their room, bring one from home, borrow one from the activity director or consider purchasing one as a gift. (You can purchase or download my CD of well known songs here.)

3. If you don’t play recorded music, you can simply sing. Even singing one or two songs will lift spirits – for everyone. It’s a great way to establish a positive mood and communicate that you are someone “good.” Choose well known and simple songs such as You Are My Sunshine, My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean, or I’ve Been Working on the Railroad. Or choose well known holiday songs or songs of faith. These songs often evoke the strongest response from people, bringing a powerful connection. (You can download my free song guides here on my website.)

4. Involve your children or grandchildren in planning a musical visit. Give them the job of figuring out what was popular when your loved one was in their 20’s and 30’s and downloading that music to play during the visit. Let them use their smart phone to make a playlist. Do they have a wireless speaker they could bring along?
If your loved one asks for a song you don’t have ready, simply go to You Tube to find it.

5. Add some energy and fun to your musical time together by patting and clapping to the beat. Don’t hesitate to dance. You may be surprised. Sometimes people can dance better than they can walk. Standing or sitting you can still “dance” together and enjoy a sweet connection.

Remember: “When words fail, music speaks.”    (Hans Christian Anderson)

Mary Sue Wilkinson is the founder of Singing Heart to Heart where each year she leads close to 400 singing and music experiences for seniors. She specializes in using music in dementia care. Mary Sue is the author of “Songs You Know By Heart: A Simple Guide for Using Music in Dementia Care” which includes her recording of favorite sing alongs as well as a contribution from Teepa Snow. Learn more and contact Mary Sue at Singing Heart to


Deborah Shouse is the author of Connecting in the Land of Dementia: Creative Activities to Explore Together and Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.
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