Music As a Tool to Help People Living with Dementia

music for dementia patients

Music For Dementia Patients Can Help

I love music! I have music on in my home all the time that I am home alone. I certainly prefer music over the television being on. I like all kinds of music – except Rap. Which some might argue is not music anyway, so do I even need to mention it? As much as I like music, I cannot play an instrument nor read music. I tried in 4th grade…it was the most humiliating moment of my life, even now at 57 years of age.  I cannot carry a tune in a bucket, but I sing…when I am alone in the car or at home and the dog is out of earshot. 😉 

One of my few early childhood memories was standing up in the middle of the backseat of the car as my mother and I were driving down 34th Street, passing Fosters Freeze. The windows were rolled down so my little girl platinum blonde hair was blowing every which way around my face, my arms stretched out across the top of the seat as far as they could go, singing at the top of my lungs along with Creedence Clearwater Revival –  “doo, doo, doo…LOOKIN’ OUT MY BACKDOOR!”  I was probably around 4 years of age. Crazy that I remember THAT when I have very few other memories of that time in my life. I also find it interesting that I might forget why I walked into the pantry from the kitchen, but I can remember song lyrics and who sings a song from 40 years ago as if my life depends upon it. I have had friends and family call or text at all times of day or night and ask, “who sings this song?” And like magic, I can rattle the answer off like it is something I majored in. Why is that?

I am not a music therapist by any stretch of the imagination, but I have seen with my own eyes in the Brain Therapy Studio how music can affect people. The following is an excerpt from an article in Todays Geriatric Medicine website*:  

Most people enjoy music, but can it actually make the mind “move”? Absolutely, according to Kimmo Lehtonen, PhD, professor of education at the University of Turku (Finland) and a clinical music therapist for more than 25 years. In fact, music therapy to promote memory.

John Carpente, founder and executive director of the Rebecca Center for Music Therapy in New York and a licensed, board-certified music therapist, describes the center’s music therapy program for older adults: “Meeting individually and within a group, elder clients express themselves and recall the memories that music sparks and stimulates. By listening to live music and being involved in live music-making experiences, a greater quality of life is possible.” This, he believes, empowers clients to emerge from the isolation imposed by Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. He notes that program therapists use music therapy to improve the overall physical and mental wellbeing of dementia patients, including the following:

  • memory recall
  • positive changes in moods and emotional states
  • a sense of control over life
  • non-pharmacological management of pain and discomfort
  • stimulation that promotes interest even when other approaches are ineffective
  • structure that promotes rhythmic and continuous movement or vocal fluency as an adjunct to physical rehabilitation
  • opportunities to interact socially with others

Another recent study from University College London finds the human brain responds to a familiar song at super speed. Researchers have quantified just how quickly our brains recognize a familiar tune.

I have two Alzheimer’s clients that I have SEEN positively respond to music in the studio. I know music has been a big part of their lives, so I try to play something specific that will appeal to them during their therapies.

Margaret played the piano at church for years and she loves to listen to soothing music of her past. She is often frightened with everyday life in the Alzheimer’s world. Sometimes I am unable to get the mask strapped on her head for the Live 02 oxygen with exercise therapy. When she looks at me with utter fear in her eyes as I approach with the oxygen mask, I know we are not getting it strapped on that day. So, I hand it to her and she holds it to her face and begins pedaling. She closes her eyes and is soon lost in the music. I am tuned into The Piano Guys, an American musical group consisting of pianist Jon Schmidt and cellist Steven Sharp Nelson. Their beautiful music is soothing to Margaret’s ears. While she holds the mask tight in one hand, she is ‘conducting’ the music with the other. She is completely lost in the music, as I watch her body relax as she begins to enjoy the ride that she was dreading just moments earlier.

Donna was a high school principal and band teacher in her professional life. Somedays she is very feisty and playful, which can make it difficult to get her on the devices because she wants to be silly instead. On those days I put on some John Philip Sousa, also known as The March King – he wrote 136 marches, including “The Stars and Stripes Forever”. As she hears the music, you can see her begin to focus and become less scattered in her thoughts and behavior. Other days when she comes in, she is more subdued and lethargic. Those days I put on some soothing piano and/or cello tunes for her. She rests comfortably on the BEMER, eyes closed while she is ‘orchestrating’ the music. She has a content smile on her beautiful face as she plays along to the music in her head. I don’t want her session to end because she looks so peaceful.  If there aren’t other clients coming in that will be waiting for the BEMER, I will often times leave her there, relaxing in the chair and listening to the music, until her bus arrives to take her back to her facility. Therapy for both of us – I love seeing her at peace.

I have Spotify loaded on my laptop and a Bluetooth speaker so that I can easily move around the studio to the various stations. The endless selection of music on Spotify makes it quick and easy to find something that works for everyone, for every mood. (Except the two clients that have made it very clear that they do not like music playing while they are in the studio. It is an individual choice that I acknowledge during their therapy sessions.) If you or your loved one have some favorites, please let us know so we can provide some music while they are using the other therapies in studio. As I mentioned above, it can be energizing or soothing, depending upon the mood of the day.

When I hear CCR’s Lookin’ Out My Backdoor, I always go back to the 4-year-old, tow headed girl standing up in the backseat, singing at the top of her lungs. It is a happy, carefree memory.

This is Christine chiming in! I work with Gar at A Mind For All Seasons. I also have a close family member who has a rare genetic mutation that brought on early onset Alzheimer’s disease (Preseniln 1 – very different from an ApoE 4 marker which is non-determinate) about 7 years ago. He is my younger sister’s husband and it is heartbreaking to watch him change. He has been on The Enhance Protocol for over a year and we feel that it has kept him stable. My sister is able to keep him at home and they are safe and content. All of his life, Robert has loved music. He was in a band in New York City as a young man. His record collection is vast. It is truly an integral part of him. Recently, he came to my sister in extreme distress. He was saying “What ever happened to the Beatles? Where are they?” My sister revels in creating moments of joy for Robert and she proceeded to play their entire collection, all day long, of Beatles recordings. Robert came to her at the end of the day, with tears in his eyes. He said “I am so happy. Thank you for making me so happy.” Not all caregivers can experience such joy and appreciation. But the Beatles helped my sister. Music helped my family. We get by with a little help from our friends.

*See the full article here: https://www.todaysgeriatricmedicine.com/news/story1.shtml

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