Music Therapy for Dementia: How Music Can Be Good Medicine
We all know that music makes us feel good. Even as infants, we are soothed by the calming effect of a simple lullaby, and according to research, this phenomenon continues well into old age. Simply listening to music has been shown to not only improve the mood of people suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s, but also improve cognitive skills and reduce the need for certain medications.
Benefits of Music Therapy
Music therapists working closely with Alzheimer’s patients have witnessed firsthand the powerful effect music can have on those overwhelmed by the disease. Patients described as withdrawn, detached, and depressed have been brought “back to life” when the sounds of familiar songs are played for them. They become more social and engaged by their surroundings, some even speaking after being silent for years. Patients are suddenly able to recall long forgotten memories, and those living with later stages of the disease are sometimes even able to remember who they are.
Neurologist Oliver Sacks, MD studied the effects of music therapy and wrote in his book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, that for Alzheimer’s patients, music is like medicine. “Music is no luxury to them, but a necessity, and it can have a power beyond anything else to restore them to themselves, and to others, at least for a while.”
Here are some of the most common benefits of music therapy for dementia patients:
- Positive changes in mood and emotional state
- Memory recall
- Management of stress-induced agitation
- Increased social interaction
- Improved cognitive functioning
- Improved coordination and motor movement
- Non-pharmacological pain management
How Music Therapy Works
Although it remains somewhat of a mystery exactly how the brain and body process music, we do know that it is processed on many levels simultaneously. Researchers have found a strong link between the brain’s auditory cortex and it’s limbic system, where emotions are processed. Because of this connection, music is instantly processed by areas of the brain that are responsible for long-term memory and emotion.
According to Sacks, “Alzheimer’s can totally destroy the ability to remember family members or events from one’s own life—but musical memory somehow survives the ravages of disease, and even in people with advanced dementia, music can often reawaken personal memories and associations that are otherwise lost.”
Additional research shows that actively making music by singing or playing instruments, rather than simply listening to it, can help improve motor skills by stimulating another part of the brain called the cerebellum, which controls balance and movement. However, even just listening to music releases dopamine in the brain and sends pleasure signals to the body, helping create positive feelings and relief from stress.
Music Therapy Tips for Caregivers
Here are some ideas for integrating music into your loved one’s daily life:
- Try creating a personalized music playlist using an iPod. Select songs that were popular during your loved one’s youth (ages 18-25) as they can stimulate some of life’s fondest memories. If they are living with late-stage dementia, choose songs reaching even farther back into their childhood days.
- Play songs that are aligned with the time of day and your loved one’s mood. Upbeat, happy songs can help energize them in the morning and start their day off right, while soft, soothing music can help calm anxiety or encourage sleep.
- Be careful to observe your loved one’s reaction while listening to music and turn it off if they seem distressed or agitated. It’s possible that certain songs can bring up bad memories or remind them of sad life experiences.
If you are interested in help from a professional, The American Music Therapy Association maintains a list of board-certified music therapists on their website, along with other helpful information related to music therapy.
If you or your family member is considering in-home care as part of a plan to age in place, contact Family Matters In-Home Care today for a free consultation. Our team is dedicated to supporting your family and helping older adults enjoy life in the comfort of their own home for as long as possible.
Some of the services offered by Family Matter In-Home Care include: Alzheimer’s & Dementia Care, Bed & Wheelchair Transfer Assistance, Companionship, Housekeeping & Meal Preparation, Personal Care, Recovery Care, and Transportation.