The Healing Power of Music for Those with Dementia

By Kim Williams
Care Manager Assistant & Manager of Transportation

Has a song ever elevated your mood or soothed you during a stressful time? Has music ever helped to validate one of your life experiences? Has a song ever brought back a memory or reminded you of past feelings?

Almost all of us have had these experiences! Why does music have such a powerful effect on us? Biologically speaking, studies show that music stimulates a region of the human brain called the pre-frontal cortex. This region is linked to emotional memory. Therefore, music has the power to go beyond our logical thinking and touch us on an emotional level. We build associations between songs, memories and feelings.

Fortunately, this pre-frontal cortex is the last region of the brain to atrophy in patients with dementia. This may explain the ability of patients with severe memory loss to remember songs from their distant past; those with dementia may not remember the names of their family members but, phenomenally, may still be able to recall song lyrics from their favorite songs, seemingly without any effort.

In recent years, professionals who work in geriatrics have been using music as a tool to reach out to those with dementia, helping them to re-connect with memories and their sense of self. The documentaryAlive Inside highlights this connection. In the film we meet Dan Cohen, a social worker from New York City, and founder of a non-profit organization called Music & Memory. Dan visits nursing homes and connects patients with iPods that are pre-recorded with the personalized music they once enjoyed. The outcome is stunning. The documentary shows how various nursing home patients with dementia will, at one moment, appear comatose and non-verbal, lost in a world where others cannot reach them, and then, with headphones on, we see them appear to come to life – expression rises to their faces, their eyes brighten, and they begin to sing, move, and talk.

Being able to recall lyrics and associated memories can help those with memory loss feel like they have regained some of their identity back. Oliver Sacks, MD, a professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University states on a video posted to the Music & Memory website, “In amnesia, whether or not in Alzheimer’s, you lose your life. You have lost your past; you have lost your story; you have lost your identity to a considerable extent.  You can at least get some feel of it and regain it, for a little while, with familiar music.”

Recent research is also showing how music is effective as a therapeutic intervention to treat behaviors and reduce the use of anti-psychotic medications in those with dementia. Nursing home staff involved in personalized music programs report that an overall effect of reduced agitation, improved behavior, and elevated mood occur.  Furthermore, these music programs facilitate a successful interaction between staff and patients, helping patients develop more positive associations and encounters with staff. Those with mental illness are also showing some improvement in well-being through the use of personalized music. When the Cornell Depression Scale was used in recent research, it was clear that people who had music in their lives had a marked decrease in depression.

For more specifics on the findings of recent research, this is a helpful link: http://musicandmemory.org/music-brain-resources/current-research/.

Adding personalized music to your loved one’s life can add a whole new dimension to your family’s ability to connect with and enjoy visiting them.  Some families report being able to listen to the personalized music over a small, in-room speaker and all enjoy singing or reminiscing to the memories inspired by the music.  Some families are able to review old photographs and scrap books, connecting with and exchanging smiles with their loved one.

Do you have a loved one with dementia who you think could benefit from music therapy using personalized playlists? To learn more, the Music & Memory website is a great resource at: https://musicandmemory.org/. Also, The Silver Runner Transportation can help create a personalized playlist for your loved one and then help facilitate the use of their listening device. We can visit them where they live, and join them in the joy of listening to their favorite tunes.

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