“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to  everything.”

—Plato

Dementia is a disease that affects almost half a million Australians. It’s the second leading cause of death in our country, and costs the national health service more than $15 billion dollars a year1.

Dementia can be a harrowing thing to deal with for a family, eating away at close relationships, hampering communication, and needing a great deal of support to manage effectively. Anything that helps to manage dementia is a godsend, and thankfully, revolutionary therapeutic tools are available to alleviate the cognitive and emotional symptoms of the disease2.

One of these tools is music therapy, and in this article, we’ll explore how music therapy for dementia can help you to manage your loved one’s illness, improve their quality of life, and enhance your relationship with them.

Music therapy—how does it work as a dementia treatment?

Music is woven into the fabric of human culture, and provides us with unique and powerful emotional experiences, whatever our age or state of mind. As a degenerative condition, pharmacological treatment only goes so far in treating dementia3, with many symptoms difficult or impossible to treat. This can be incredibly distressing for the person suffering from the condition, as well as family members, but thankfully, music therapy has emerged as a worthwhile strategy for improving cognitive function and quality of life. When a dementia patient is suffering from cognitive impairment, with traditional experiences and forms of communication impaired, music seems to break through the barrier of logical thinking and speaks to their very souls.

So rather than struggling to find words to express themselves, your elderly loved one might start humming along with the music, warble a lyric or two, or even rise from their chair for a little dance, where you can happily join them. With the introduction of music, expression isn’t confined to mere talking, but broadened to include joyful major scales, soaring arpeggios, sweeping rhapsodies, amorous love lyrics, and everything in between. It’s as though a long-lost language has been rediscovered; a precious language forever protected, and always accessible. The result is a wonderfully positive way to spend time with each other, and to reconnect in a way that nourishes the soul.

“Music is the literature of the heart; it commences where speech ends.”

—Alphonse de Lamartine

Music can also conjure fond memories that can help to treat emotional issues such as aggression or withdrawal. Music chosen from their young adult years (18 to 25) tends to have the strongest emotional responses, and the best chance of positive therapeutic effect2. On the other hand, music can also trigger bad memories, so it’s recommended to keep a close eye on how your elderly loved one is reacting to what is being played.

2014 documentary Alive Inside chronicles the incredible power of music for dementia patients, and how it awakens parts of the brain untouched by the disease. Renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks believes that “music has more ability to activate parts of the brain than any other stimulus, and the part of the brain that processes sound and music is the last to go in dementia.” The part of the brain in question is procedural memory5, preserved from the ravages of dementia, and illuminated by a ballad from the Righteous Brothers, a hit from Roy Orbison, or a sassy number from Aretha Franklin. When the notes, percussion, and lyrics from those songs fill the air, memories from younger years are activated, which can produce the most astonishing and beautiful emotional responses.

What are the benefits of music for dementia?

Studies show that music therapy for dementia patients can help to reduce the symptoms of their disease, improve their sense of wellbeing by reducing their stress, anxiety, agitation, and depression, and reduce behavioural issues such as aggression and withdrawal. It may also improve cognition, particularly verbal fluency and attention. Some people report changes in mood that can last for hours, and a sustained alertness4.

Music for dementia patients has even shown to reduce the need for certain medications, and diminish levels of pain and discomfort2.

How is music therapy for dementia performed?

Professional music therapy is performed by a therapist, where they work with individuals or groups to evoke memories, feelings, and sensations. This can be completed in an aged care facility, or in private one-to-one sessions.

Dementia Australia also organises free music therapy sessions for residents of Brisbane, run by qualified music therapists who understand how to get the most out of each session. There haven’t been any new sessions posted in a while, but to get more information, you can try emailing Dementia Australia directly.

Best practices for music and dementia

If you’re thinking of trying a little unofficial musical therapy with your elderly loved one, it’s important to give them the best possible chance of success. Try following these guidelines.

Select the right music

For the therapy to be effective, you’ll need to select music that your elderly loved one enjoys. Try to remember the music they played when you were a child, or find popular tracks that were a hit when they were young adults. Or perhaps you know some songs that are special to them in some way—the first dance at their wedding, or even the first dance at yours.

Spotify has tons of playlists that you can use—there’s bound to be some music that they’ll love. This is the most important part of the process, so take as much time as you need to select music that your elderly loved one is likely to appreciate.

Think about what you’re trying to achieve

Different types of music have different effects on us. A love ballad might make us feel a little soppy and romantic, and propel us towards our partner. A techno track from the early 80’s may evoke memories of thumping, dingy basements, and invigorate our limbs with an energy we thought we’d lost. 

When selecting your music, think about what you’re trying to get your loved one to do. Perhaps you’re just trying to get them to talk a little more, and even sing a little. Maybe you’d like to coax them into a gentle Charleston, or just get them moving whichever way the music takes them. Whatever your goal, try to select a musical genre that best suits.

Silence all other noise

Few people enjoy the harshness of cacophony, particularly seniors. To encourage your elderly loved one to focus on your chosen music, try to silence all other noise. Turn off the television, close the door, and just allow them to hear the music being played, and when you’re attempting music therapy, interruptive sounds can 

Pay attention to them

It’s critical to pay close attention to how your loved one is responding to the music. Is a particular song making them smile a little more than usual? Or has it sent their foot into a tapping frenzy? If so, make a note of the song for future reference. Similarly, if a song seems to have caused them to withdraw into themselves, change it immediately, and discard it from your playlist.

Encourage them to sing and move

Embarrassing as it can be for some people, singing together is a fantastic way to bond, and it can also spark pleasant memories. Similarly, clapping, tapping feet, or dancing together is also a wonderful way to connect to your elderly loved one.

References

  1. 2020, Dementia statistics, Dementia.org.au
  2. Music therapy assists dementia care in Bendigo, Dementia.org.au
  3. Celia Moreno-Morales, Raul Calero, Pedro Moreno-Morales, Cristina Pintado, Music Therapy in the Treatment of Dementia: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, Frontiers In Medicine
  4. Lisa Cugnetto, 2016, The power of music in memories, Dementia.org.au
  5. Ronald Devere, 2017, Music and Dementia: An Overview, Practical Neurology
  6. Olivia Brancatisano, Amee Baird, William Forde Thompson, 2019, A ‘Music, Mind and Movement’ Program for People With Dementia: Initial Evidence of Improved Cognition, Frontiers In Psychology