Music therapy uses music to work with individuals or groups of people with dementia to enhance their quality of life.
A person’s ability to engage in music often remains intact far into the advanced stages of dementia. This is because music stimulates the motor center of the brain, which responds directly to auditory rhythmic sounds. This does not require active cognitive processes to work well.
Music can be a great opportunity to provide another layer of emotional and physical support when caring for your loved ones.
What Music Can Do
1. Enhance communication
As dementia progresses, it often becomes more difficult for a person to share their thoughts and feelings with other people in a meaningful, intimate way.
Listening to music together can allow those with dementia to relax and share experiences with others that does not require them to express themselves verbally. They may still be able to join you in singing along to favorite songs. Or simply holding hands while listening may provide a chance for deeper intimacy.
A person’s reduced ability to share with others can also feel very isolating. Music gives a space for those with dementia to interact socially, either with their loved ones, therapists or with a music therapy group.
Another important aspect of music is the fact it is strongly linked to memories. The Institute for Music and Neurological Function in New York found that sound is processed by the areas of the brain that deal with long-term memory and emotions. Many of us can relate to this as certain songs often remind you of major life events or evoke strong feelings.
Even if someone with dementia is not able to express these memories anymore, they are still able to be moved by the feelings and associations in their own way.
2. Provide emotional support
Music can be closely related to many of our unconscious emotions. A person may be able to connect with emotions they may not be consciously aware of anymore by listening to a piece of music.
Research has shown that music therapy can help those with dementia improve their memory recall, create a more positive mood and gain a greater sense of control over their lives.
In addition, most music will have either a stimulating or relaxing effect on a listener. This can be used in different therapeutic ways depending on your purpose.
If your loved one is fairly advanced in their dementia and does not respond easily, a stimulating piece of music may help to rouse them in a way simple conversation no longer can. Some people may start tapping their toes or look up attentively to listen to the music.
Stimulating music can also be played in the background at mealtime or other daily activities when it’s helpful to promote wakefulness.
In contrast, music can also help with individuals who become agitated or more aggressive due to their dementia. It’s helpful to identify if their disruptive behavior has a pattern. For instance, many people with dementia will become more upset around the time the sun sets, known as “sundowning.”
Times like these would be ideal to play relaxing music to see if it can help create a calming atmosphere and diffuse any tense situations.
3. Promote physical benefits
Music is an excellent way to promote exercise for those with dementia who are still physically active. Dancing together is a great way to interact if they are able to stand. Even in a wheelchair, many people with dementia are able to move their bodies to rhythm in various ways, from swinging their arms to moving their feet.
Many with dementia are also able to participate in physically making music. They may be able to use drums, bells, harps or other instruments. This can clearly improve their mood and enjoyment of interaction, but it will also help them build muscle strength.
Many studies have shown that familiar and well-like music can have more positive outcomes than medication for older adults with various types of dementia. Music has been able to reduce depression, lessen agitation, decrease problem behaviors and increase sociability, movement and cognitive function better than medications.
Music has also been found to act as an effective non-pharmacological way to manage physical pain.
How to Use Music With Your Loved Ones
A professional therapist can help you plan specific care for your loved one based on their history and personality. If you live in the United States, the American Music Therapy Association can help you find a therapist in your area. For other countries, there is often a similar local association you can contact.
If your loved one is in a care facility, they may already have a music therapy program in place. If they don’t, try discussing it with facility staff.
There are many general ways you can start using music to interact with those who have dementia, such as:
Dance with them, either at home or go somewhere they feel comfortable. Make sure to play music they really love.
Try a karaoke machine or use song sheets so you can sing along together.
If they are farther along in their dementia and more interactive activities are unrealistic, at least spend time listening to music with them. Do your best to find what types of music they enjoyed earlier in their lives. Watch for their reactions to different music choices and stick to ones that seem to either calm them or make them happy. If they show signs of irritation, such as facial grimaces or tensing their muscles, stop the music and try something different.
Sing to them, especially if they are unable to sing along themselves. And if you can sign to them in their first language, this often has the most positive effect.
Find out if there are any local music therapy groups you can join with your loved one, or start your own.