Music and the Mind: How Music Therapy Can Help Treat Alzheimer’s and Dementia

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When you are caring for someone with Alzheimer’s or other dementia, it can be difficult to find ways to help him or her rediscover their pleasure in the world, but when Victor Hugo said “music expresses that which cannot be said,” he could not have been more right. Music is a universal language and is a powerful means of communication and expression, especially with those who otherwise difficult to reach.

Recent studies show that music therapy has been widely successful in helping individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. Because rhythmic responses require little to no cognitive processing, music can be an extremely useful therapeutic tool and can not only shift mood and decrease stress, but can stimulate positive interactions, facilitate cognitive functioning and coordinate motor movements. Several case studies have even suggested that musical skills may remain after all other cognitive skills have deteriorated, giving patients with cognitive impairments a meaningful outlet. In this way, music provides patients with a way to connect, even after verbal communication has become difficult.

Triggering Memories

In addition to using music as a therapeutic tool to improve a patient’s mood, music can also be used to stimulate memory. We all have specific memories or emotions that we associate with certain music or songs. For individuals with Alzheimer’s or other dementia this is no different. The connection with music can be so strong that hearing a tune can often trigger a memory that otherwise may have been forgotten.

Music from young adult years—ages 18 to 25—have been proven the most likely to provoke the strongest responses and therefore hold the most potential for engagement. This is especially true for individuals progressing into late-stage dementia, as memories from their youth are often the last they hold.

Keep in mind, however, that memories change. What was once a wedding ballad may remind a person of the loss of a loved one or friend, so when using music therapy, always keep in mind the person’s prior experience with the piece. Observe your loved one’s reaction to a particular tune and discontinue it if it appears to be provoking distress.

Stimulative and Sedative Music

The music played doesn’t necessarily have to be used to trigger memories. Unfamiliar music can also be beneficial as it presents a clean slate to build new emotional responses and associations. For example “stimulative music” with quick tempos and percussion that can be used to provoke movement or action. Stimulative music can be used to help individuals with the activities of daily living such as rousing individuals who tend to fall asleep or lose energy during certain tasks such as bathing.

“Sedative music” on the other hand can be used to help relax individuals or to help them sleep. Sedative music includes slow tempos, little percussion and relaxing melodies. When choosing a type of music, remember that it is possible for the individual to have the opposite response intended due to their specific associations with a particular piece or style of music. In this case, don’t force it and stop what isn’t working.

Dancing, Singing and Expression

For individuals in the later stages of dementia, verbal expression may become difficult. Without an outlet, individuals can experience frustration and agitation; this is where music can help tremendously. Music can encourage expression through singing, tap, dance, and movement to the music according to ability. Individuals retain their ability for small movement until very late in the disease process, and expression through music can provide an emotional and physical release.

Engaging a patient or loved one in expression through music can also create powerful emotional connections, giving caregivers an opportunity to connect with the individual and build trust. Further, it is important to just let go, and music can give both the caregiver and the care receiver an outlet for wordless expression.

Using Music for Your Loved One

Remember that the use of music therapy for individuals with Alzheimer’s can vary depending on the stage of the disease. For this reason, it is important to start small. For those in the early stages of the disease, you are encouraged to dance along, attend concerts or music events together and encourage them to play instruments and sing karaoke. For those in the middle stages, background music can be useful and your loved one is recommended to listen or sing while they are walking to improve balance. For those in the late stages, it is best to start with incorporating music from the person’s past and encourage drumming or rhythm-based activities paired with facial expressions to communicate feelings while listening.

Music can be a powerful tool to help individuals with Alzheimer’s and other dementia feel connected and expressive. Remember, you know your loved one best, if a certain type of music seems to be affecting them badly, then stop it. Everyone responds differently to different stimulation, so keep this in mind when experimenting with your loved one. With that said, let the music play!

Music has demonstrated impressive results in connecting with those who may be otherwise unreachable. Regents Care Services believes Holistic care is an integral part of living.

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Regents Care Services is a Healthcare company in Ontario that provides services within clients’ homes. We service the entire Greater Toronto Area and all surrounding cities. Our approach is to provide holistic care that is consistent and personalized. We believe that therapeutic relationships combined with honesty and empathy are integral factors that ensure positive healthcare experiences for our clients and their family members. Our Mission is to provide optimum care to our clients, by delivering holistic, compassionate and comprehensive home healthcare that affirms cultural sensitivity and maintains autonomy; allowing our clients to lead rich and fulfilling lives.

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