Singing Along With Persons Living With Dementia

by | March 16, 2024 | Celebrating, Involving Others, Other

Don Wendorf likes to add props to go with certain singalong songs. Here, he's dressed up to sing Elvis Presley’s “Blue Hawaii” and “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Don Wendorf shares tips from his own experience leading singalongs with persons living with dementia.

If you plan on doing singalongs with persons living with dementia, be prepared to accept these consequences:

  1. Have an outrageously good time.
  2. Feel deliciously good about making a meaningful difference in several lives, including your own.

I think you’re up for it, so let me offer a few tips I’ve learned from my experience. For many years, I’ve been doing singalongs with persons living with dementia. I’ve done singalongs at a number of memory cafes, adult day care programs, respite programs, and even on Zoom.

Sing “With,” Not “For”

Note my choice of prepositions in the title and first sentence above. I said “with” and not “for.” That’s the main thing to keep in mind when doing singalongs. My primary objective is a human encounter. Each of us makes our contributions to a shared, joyful event.

Yes, I try to make it as musically satisfying as possible, but it is not primarily a performance “for” as much as an interaction “with” that I’m after. Everything should be planned toward that goal. Musical performances are wonderful, and I love doing those, too; but, that’s a little different ball game to me.

Terminology is important. I’m singing with “persons living with dementia.” I say “persons,” never patients. You’re still a person if you have a dementia diagnosis. I say “living with dementia,” never “suffering from dementia.” I like to say “care partners” instead of “caregivers,” because partners live alongside each other.

Persons living with dementia still have the same needs for friendship, love, spirituality, play, fun, creativity, sharing, giving, and feeling competent. Singing along with persons living with dementia can fulfill those needs.

Make Connections

I want involvement and interaction. So, I keep a constant dialogue going, heavy on the humor, teasing, playfulness, stories, and silliness. I include music trivia. I improvise on what participants say and do, get goofy, comment on fun facts about the songs, and keep things flowing, spontaneous, and interactional.

Humor, music, and conversation connect us in sharing the common experience of being human and affirming each other as persons. Be present, and be open.

I’m constantly looking for things each person might do to be as fully engaged as possible. I encourage singing, clapping, toe-tapping, whistling, finger-snapping, dancing, even yodeling for adventurous folks. (Most won’t be able to yodel any better than me, but it’s so much fun to try).

I’ll have someone play my tambourine, ask another if they’d like to hold and share a printed copy of the lyrics, and get one person to help someone else read lyrics. (People often want to help each other and contribute. Volunteers can also be very useful here).

If someone requests a song, I try to do it (if I can pull it off musically). If I don’t know the song, I’ll tell them I will try to learn it, so we can sing it together next time.

I repeatedly call everyone by name. I encourage everyone to wear name tags, and I make sure to wear my own LARGE name tag. (I like it when you can’t easily tell who has dementia and who doesn’t.)

I have as much direct contact with each person as is appropriate (i.e. shaking hands, pat on the shoulder, handing them props or rhythm instruments, etc.). That goes for volunteers, too. Everyone, with or without dementia, wants to be known. Once, I greeted a new participant, Mary Lou, with the Ricky Nelson song, “Hello Mary Lou.”

This is my style. You can, and should, have your own. The point is to make it very casual, personal, comfortable, and fun for everyone. It’s just like if you were joining friends in your living room for a “picking and grinning” party. It’s about relationships and supporting personhood.

Expect the Unexpected

When singing along with persons living with dementia, expect the unexpected, and go with it. Ad lib with what is happening over your planned set list. I’ve seen participants get up and start dancing. One group marched as we sang “When the Saints Go Marching In.” At another, a participant had a finger puppet he called “Leon.” So, we let Leon lead a couple of songs, and we now bring puppets of our own to go with particular songs.

Be creative, and never underestimate what “persons living with dementia” CAN STILL DO. Bring out and support that competency.

At one venue, a guy had a harmonica in his pocket, and we brought him into a couple of tunes in his key. He will never make a career on harmonica, but he felt so good at being able to do something competently, to contribute to the group, and to be known as a musician.

One man brought his guitar and played blues with us. A former church organist played a hymn when another musician brought his keyboard. I’ve had several former choir directors conduct the rest of the group (even though they could no longer sing themselves.)

It is also very commonplace that someone who is usually very reserved or silent or withdrawn will come alive with the music. Those magic moments, those “minor musical miracles,” make it all worthwhile. Not only that, but families report that the good feelings and happy mood last long after the session is over, sometimes for days.

Recognize Limitations

When you are doing singalongs with persons living with dementia, you will experience many magic moments. At the same time, be aware that dementia is all too real, and there are real limitations in ability to be dealt with. Some people will tire faster or lapse in attention or be unable to multi-task (i.e. doing art and music at the same time).

Some persons may need a little extra time to communicate their comment or formulate their answer. You and the volunteers should always pause before responding, giving persons space to answer for themselves. Some persons may need to be able to withdraw a bit if the stimulation gets a bit too intense. Others may only be able to sit and listen silently, but they should still be treated as part of the group. Talk with them, make eye contact, or let them hold a songbook. One of my favorite participants is a lady who never sings a word, but her radiant smile shows how totally aware and present she is in the experience.

My basic assumption is that the core, essence, personhood, and soul of the person is still there. Their abilities may not be the same, but we can still find a way to tap into who they are, with or without words. Expressive arts and volunteer friends can be great helps in meeting people where they are. (I’m greatly indebted to Naomi Fell, the developer of Validation Therapy, for this person-centered philosophy.)

Trust the Power of Music

Music has a special power all its own for all of us, and that very much includes persons living with dementia. Music connects us with each other. It can spark memories, elicit emotions, let “selves” emerge, increase communication, and brighten moods.

Some people can no longer converse well, but they may still be able to sing all the words with you and enjoy the social encounter immensely. Some may not understand exactly who you are, but they may feel the caring you have for them. They can still recognize that you are someone to relate to who wants to relate to them.

Always allow time for people to share reactions or feelings or comments or memories. Ask for them throughout the session. Share your own memories and feelings, too.

Know Your Audience

It’s important to know who your “audience” is. Know demographics in terms of age, ethnicity, and level of functioning. Then, plan your song list accordingly.

Involve staff and volunteers as well. I want them to feel how special they are, and I want them to have just as good a time, because that will transfer right back into the other participants. So, I include them in all my playing, teasing, quizzing, etc. and let them know how much they are appreciated.

I prefer a smaller audience, maybe 20 or so total, and an intimate physical setting where I am very close and can meet folks eyeball to eyeball. It’s nice to have an environment that is not too loud, too busy, or too cluttered, as some people may get distracted or feel bombarded by stimuli and have to leave or just shut down.

Learn about your particular group’s program and history. I’ve found some that have their own traditions and expectations it’s nice to blend into. For example, one group liked to stand, hold hands and sing “Stand By Me” together. One liked to end with “Happy Trails,” while another always recited an Irish blessing together.

I like to sometimes have one or two other musicians with me, when available, as it expands what I can offer musically. I always bring several different instruments to spice up the variety. [Editor’s Note: If you are a singer who doesn’t play an instrument, check out our Singalong Leader Videos. Or, here is some information on Becoming a Songs & Smiles Singalong Leader.]

Some participants will not sing and just listen, another reason I want it to be well done musically. They deserve it (and the music deserves it). I’ll usually bring a tenor banjo or tenor guitar for old jazz standards (i.e. “All of Me” or “Blue Skies”), a 5-string open-back banjo for clawhammer style old time Southern gospel (i.e. “I’ll Fly Away” or “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”), and a mandolin and harmonica if someone else handles guitar. But, just a single guitar or a keyboard is perfectly fine. I also think it’s fine to take little solo breaks, as long as you don’t turn it into a performance rather than a shared endeavor.

Choose the Best Songs

I choose songs carefully. I want to do material that will spark old memories and nostalgic feelings. I want them to be singable, not too complicated or requiring a large vocal range.

Usually, people will know or recognize the old melodies but probably not all the lyrics, although you might be surprised how many words people remember. So, I try to pick songs not done all the time, but still very familiar and accessible, and I provide the lyrics for everyone. Songs with easy to learn, repeating chorus lyrics are great, too, where I may sing the verses and everyone joins in on the chorus.

Sometimes respite or day care or memory café programs have a theme for the day that I try to tap into if there are songs that fit it. I like to blend familiar songs with other songs that will spark different memories and add variety. Over the years, I’ve developed many different singalong themes for singing along with persons living with dementia. I often still include singalong standards, such as “You Are My Sunshine,” because, for many people, it’s just so comfortable and enjoyable to sing those familiar tunes.

I have used songbooks I’ve made with lyrics and basic chords, too, in case there are unexpected musicians joining in. It’s nice if the lyrics can be projected onto a large screen. Having the lyrics projected on a big screen is especially helpful if folks are playing rhythm instruments, as it’s hard to play and juggle printed lyrics at the same time.

I like to add images to go along with songs for extra simulation, creativity, mental exercise, conversation, and fun. This might be cartoons, a photo of a composer or singer, funny associations, or anything to stimulate memories or reactions. I’ll also often use props that fit the song … perhaps a candy bar, a globe, or a baby doll. I sometimes change hats half a dozen times to match different songs.

Affirm People

Singing along with persons living with dementia is fun and meaningful.  Leading singalongs, you will share pleasure, satisfaction, and friendship.

Remember your goals should be maximum participation, connection, stimulation, and shared enjoyment. Affirm and nurture personhood as you sing. You can do this, and I sure do hope you will.



Don Wendorf and his wife, Lynda Everman, serve as advocates, authors, and speakers, supporting dementia care partners and working to Stamp Out Alzheimer’s.


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Tags: connection | joy | songs
Author Bio: Don Wendorf is a retired psychologist and an active musician. He and his wife, Lynda Everman, serve as advocates, authors, and speakers, supporting dementia care partners and working to Stamp Out Alzheimer’s.

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