Music Therapy for Dementia
Music therapy for dementia is increasing in use across different care settings, as well as within people’s own homes. Music has long been thought to help those living with a dementia diagnosis but does it really work, and if so…how?
Music is universally enjoyed by people of all ages, cultures, and backgrounds and is usually associated with happy and memorable events, such as the first dance at a wedding or a song that was always playing when on a favourite holiday. Certain songs have a way of transporting us back in time and allowing us to feel those happy emotions once again.
How does it work?
Dementia robs those affected of their shorter-term memories but allows the person to still be able to remember events from their childhood or years as a young adult. As the dementia becomes more advanced many people will not only lose their memory but also their ability to talk and understand elements of language. It has been theorised that language and music are processed in different areas of the brain. This could explain why music can still be enjoyed by, and be beneficial to those with a dementia diagnosis who have lost the ability to communicate and understand verbal requests.
Studies have shown music to be helpful for people with dementia in several ways, although they nearly all acknowledge that further research and clinical trials are needed to build up a bigger picture. Anecdotally, however, the positive effects shine through for many. There have been various stories in the media of how music therapy for dementia has helped individuals who are usually withdrawn, non-verbal and apathetic ‘brighten and come alive’ when playing their favourite songs. Some of the positive effects reported have even lasted hours or days after the music was initially played.
What are the benefits?
We need to note that music therapy will not be suitable for everyone and that in some cases may even be distressing for the person, however, there have been many benefits reported by health and social care staff.
- Improvement in mood, reduction in anxiety, agitation and challenging behaviours.
- Assisting in soothing someone whilst certain important tasks are taking place that may be distressing eg. personal care.
- Increased movement either by dancing for those who are more mobile, or by head nodding, toe tapping and hand waving for those who are not.
- Positive interactions with caregivers – wanting to connect more either by physical touch or by talking about the music and their memories.
- Maintenance of speech and language by singing along.
- Improved quality of life.
Implementing music therapy for dementia
The implementation does to some degree depend on the person’s living situation. One of the most popular ways to help someone living in a shared home environment is by creating a playlist of favourite songs and putting them onto an MP3 player, which can then be listened to via headphones.
Over the Covid-19 lockdown, a new online radio station (md4 radio) was launched by the charity Music for Dementia. There are 5 different stations, one of which is mixed music and the others all play songs from different decades and eras. This is a free service with no commercials that runs 24 hours a day, every day of the year. It has unsurprisingly had fantastic feedback from those personally affected by dementia and from family members and other caregivers.
Music therapy is completely free, which makes it a very easy therapy to trial. It won’t suit everyone, which is why we suggest starting small with a single favourite song, played at a medium volume. If the person becomes distressed then you can easily stop the song and soothe them in a different way. If they seem to enjoy the music, you can then make a playlist of favourite songs by asking them and their family members the types of music and artists they particularly enjoy. If this isn’t possible, then you can start by looking at their age and trying songs from specific decades where they would have been a teenager or young adult. Please take particular care with anyone who has hearing loss or impairment; it may be necessary to seek further support from a doctor or an audiology specialist first.
We hope that you have found this article helpful and that it has given you some insight into music therapy for dementia and the benefits it can bring.
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