Alzheimer's / Dementia

11/4/2021 | By Kari Smith

Kari Smith, a professional musician and regular contributor to Seniors Guide, reflects on the friendship between Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, on Bennett’s flawless performances despite his Alzheimer’s, and how music can help other dementia patients.

Music is powerful. A simple song lyric can trigger a memory, soothe a baby to sleep, or energize your workout. It also has another super-power: it can unite the people in its reach – from every culture, generation, and circumstance. This is the case in the highly publicized relationship between powerhouse pop icon Lady Gaga and famed jazz crooner Tony Bennett. 

The roots of friendship for Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga

Some found it unexpected when the two – whose age difference spans 60 years – first collaborated. Music is indeed the tie that bound them, after he heard her perform a jazz standard at a charity event. It actually makes perfect sense that two highly trained artists who mutually respected the others’ skill would join their talents in such a classical genre. Gaga, whose given name is Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, is a classically trained, Grammy-award winning artist whose vocal genres span from pop and dance to electronic and jazz.

Bennett invited Gaga to sing with him in their very first meeting, and she quickly agreed. They released their first song together on his album Duets II: The Great Performances in 2011 (featuring a wide range of duets with other renowned performers, from Andrea Bocelli to Sheryl Crow, Aretha Franklin, Faith Hill, Natalie Cole, and more). They followed with the release of their album Cheek to Cheek together in 2014. Their latest – and final – album, Love for Salewas released September 2021 as a tribute to American songwriter Cole Porter.  

Gaga’s admiration and respect for Bennett and his body of work are well known, and her famous trumpet tattoo on her right bicep is a nod to her time with Tony, an accomplished artist who sketched the piece for her. One peek at their video performance of the swingin’ title track of their last album, “Love for Sale” speaks volumes of the musical chemistry present between the duo. It just works.  

Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga performed two sold-out shows at Radio City Music Hall in New York City in August 2021. The first of these shows celebrated his 95th birthday. He finished production and recording of his last album at the age of 95.

Although his continued success is remarkable given his advanced years, it is even more so given his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease in 2016. Both Gaga and Bennett’s wife and caregiver, Susan Crow, report that despite the daily struggles and memory loss caused by the disease, the fog is lifted where music is concerned. In fact, his exit from live performance has everything to do with his physical abilities to travel and maneuver a stage, and nothing to do with his performance or ability to remember song lyrics, which he still does flawlessly and without a teleprompter. Despite struggles before taking the stage and after leaving it, he was not lost in the music during his time on stage; he was found. 

Working this magic on others

Studies have shown that in some situations, musical memories are in areas of the brain that may be less likely to be damaged by the disease. With the knowledge that music can be an integral and therapeutic part of your loved one’s life while living with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, you may wonder how you can integrate it into their daily routine. 


Music can be soothing and relaxing to an Alzheimer’s patient, especially when the tunes are melodies from memorable times in their lives. You may not remember, or your loved one may not be able to share their favorite tunes with you, such as a hit song from their high school days or song played at their wedding ceremony. If that’s the case, choose songs from their teenage or young adult years that may spark memories of good times. If your loved one sang or played an instrument in the past, encourage them to sing or give them access to that instrument to see what skills come back to them. For example, if they were a pianist, bring a portable keyboard, play recorded piano music for them, or take them to hear a pianist play live. 

10 Activities to Do with Dementia and Alzheimer’s Patients


For memory care patients, be intentional about having the music as their main focus, rather than something playing in the background. Use physical media such as vinyl or a CD, or set up a playlist in a digital music player or from an uninterrupted music service. Songs played from a radio station or free music app may be frequently interjected with talking or commercials. Turn off or remove other sources of noise that may cause confusion when playing music.

Set the Tone

To set a calming mood or for relaxation or sleep, play slower, melodic pieces. For exercise, play a faster-paced song with an upbeat tempo. During the holidays, play familiar favorites that may evoke memories of happy times. Watch your loved one to see how they respond to the music. You may be able to see signs or whether the song resonates with them, but also if it agitates them. 

As a professional musician who has performed in skilled nursing and memory care units, I can only guess what songs may hit the proverbial chord with my listeners, whom I have just met. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing that suddenly uplifted head, widened eyes, or slow smile that let you know that you have found a tune that brings them back. Music is, indeed, so powerful. 

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Kari Smith

Kari Smith is a frequent contributor to Seniors Guide, helping to keep those in the senior industry informed and up-to-date. She's a Virginia native whose love of writing began as a songwriter recording her own music. In addition to teaching music and performing in the Richmond area, Kari also enjoys riding horses and farming.

Kari Smith