Music Therapy: Benefit for Those with Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia

BY: 

INSPĪR SENIOR LIVING TEAM

Music is beneficial for people of all ages. Beginning in childhood, we learn songs and play instruments. As we age, we enjoy music in concert halls, the theatre, movies, and live performances. We sing to ourselves in our cars, we write music, we gather with family and friends to sing, and as a result, we stimulate our brains, lower stress and anxiety, and help ward off depression.

What is it about music that influences humans to this degree? In a Time article, Kim Innes, a professor of epidemiology at West Virginia University’s School of Public Health, says, “Music seems to ‘selectively activate’ neurochemical systems and brain structures associated with positive mood, emotion regulation, attention and memory in ways that promote beneficial changes.”

If music has such an impact on people in general, imagine what it can do for those with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia-related illnesses. There is proof that the use of music therapy in adults can be traced back more than 2,000 years. During the 20th century, community musicians gathered in military hospitals to play for World War II veterans suffering from both physical and emotional trauma. Today, music therapy is widely known for its tremendous effects on those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia and is used throughout the nation in retirement communities and nursing homes. 

Research on music therapy suggests that it can provide improvements in memory recall, boost mood, reduce stress and anxiety, help manage pain and discomfort, and encourage emotional intimacy with family members and caregivers. As Alzheimer’s and dementia progress, communication and connection can become more difficult. However, research has shown that music therapy is linked to emotion and memory and can help families and caregivers find new ways of connecting with their loved ones. 

Music and Emotion

In music therapy practices for those with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, music is used as a way to maintain or increase their levels of physical, mental, social, and emotional functioning. Music can evoke emotion, and emotion often leads to recalling memories, especially when the song is from one’s past. By pairing music with everyday activities, patients can develop a rhythm that helps them remember the activity and improve cognitive ability over time. As the disease progresses and communication becomes difficult, music is a great way to connect. Musical aptitude and appreciation are some of the last remaining abilities for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. Music can help reach beyond the disease and access emotions differently. Familiar music from the past can be a powerful way to boost mood and reduce agitation. If your loved one is ambulatory, dancing can often lead to a physical connection such as embracing and holding hands.

Memory in Sound

Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are degenerative diseases, which can make expressing basic needs more difficult. However, trained music therapists use music interventions as a way of communicating non-traditionally. Singing can offer structure and enable dialogue by stimulating different areas of the brain. Communicative actions such as pointing, laughing, and smiling are common gestures used in music therapy to communicate needs and emotions. Music therapy can also be used to provide a renewed sense of identity for those living with Alzheimer’s disease. Singing songs from the past and reliving memories through sound can help those with Alzheimer’s communicate stories and memories to their loved ones and caregivers. 

Practicing Music Therapy at Home

While music therapy is best when facilitated by a trained and certified music therapist, you can apply the same helpful methods at home. The Mayo Clinic suggests that music can be used in a variety of ways to help spark a connection, evoke memories, and decrease feelings of anxiety and agitation, especially for those living with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. If you’re interested in using music as a way to connect to or soothe your loved one, here are a few tips to keep in mind.

Play your loved one’s favorite selections

Start with playing music that your loved one will enjoy, such as a favorite selection from when they were a teenager or young adult. This can evoke positive memories and remind them of happy times in their life.

Engage younger generations

Music is a great way for grandkids and adult children to connect with their loved one who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. You might encourage your family members to make a playlist of their loved one’s favorite songs or help them choose what to listen to together. 

Set the mood

Playing relaxing and instrumental music can help calm your loved one, especially during meal times or before going to sleep. When you’d like to keep your loved one alert and engaged, play upbeat or fast-paced music.

Avoid over-stimulation

Those with Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia can get overwhelmed easily. It’s important to limit distractions while you’re playing music. Turn off the TV, shut the door, and opt for music that isn’t interrupted by commercials when playing through a streaming service.

Encourage movement

Help your loved ones clap or tap their feet to the beat. If you can, you might consider dancing with your loved ones to keep them engaged and foster a sense of security.

Pay attention to the response

If your loved one enjoys particular songs or types of music, play them often. Make sure to avoid music that seems to provoke agitation or over-stimulation.

Let the music play

Music can be beneficial for caregivers as well. Whether it’s creating your playlist to boost your mood after emotional days or finding joy in watching your loved one engage with music, it’s important to find ways to care for yourself, too. 

Find a professional music therapist

The American Music Therapy Association represents 5,000 music therapists and other associations that offer information about music therapy studies and provides a list of credentialed music therapists that offer their services in institutional, residential, and private home settings.

Music at Inspīr

Music is celebrated at Inspīr. We host live performances weekly, from pianists to violinists. Club Carnegie, our new entertainment club, meets twice weekly at the SkyPark and has hosted cabaret acts, Irish dancing, and bossa nova in recent weeks. Dancing paired with music provides all our residents, not just those in Oceana (memory care), with stimulating and vital engagement. Music therapy is one of the many ways we help residents live a vibrant and meaningful life.