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The Therapeutic Benefits of Music for People Living with Memory Loss 

Is your care team taking advantage of music?

There are many known benefits of music therapy for dementia. Care partners can use music strategies to help people socialize and relax.  

This article explains the power of music for people living with dementia, their loved ones, and caregivers.

Benefits of Music for Dementia

As abilities fade, music remains.

Music engages the mind in a way that’s familiar. Even as other cognitive abilities decline, music remains accessible.

For Bucky - my wife's 86-year-old grandmother - not many things coming easily. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease several years ago. Bucky needs help with most tasks. She lives in a nursing home and relies on staff to assist with activities of daily living.

When we visit, she is always pleasant. She loves seeing her family and friends, but her memory makes socializing difficult. Bucky struggles with names and has trouble following along with conversations. To avoid confusion, she calls all her loved ones "my sweetheart" and mostly keeps to herself.

Music is her refuge. In a world where most things are difficult, music comes easily. When we play music from her past, she lights up, starts moving to the beat, and sings along.  

Bucky is Polish, and loves sings in her native language. During every visit, we have at least one group sing-along to Bobby Vinton's hit song Melody of Love. She sings joyously, as the upbeat pop song alternates between verses in Polish and English.  

Music helps her connect to her visitors and past memories. Over the holiday, her brothers came to visit, and they sang Polish Christmas carols.

It took our family a few years to lean into the power of music. Even though Bucky always enjoyed music, she did not listen regularly. It was not part of her day-to-day routine.

Listening to music was not part of typical family visits either. It took some experimentation to find the right songs and approach to making music part of our visits.

Music can be enjoyable for all people with dementia. Even those without a musical background can benefit from stimulating the mind with music.

Bucky singing Christmas carols in Polish, her native language.

Bucky singing "Melody of Love" by Polish pop start Bobby Vinton.

This article highlights therapeutic benefits of music for people living with Alzheimer's disease and related dementias. It also provides simple suggestions for friends, family, and professionals to get started using music. 


Music and the Brain

A special connection between music and memories

There is a connection between meaningful music and memories.  

A 2009 study from the University of California demonstrated music's impact on memories. During the study, researchers mapped the brain while people listened to music. They found that specific brain regions were linked to autobiographical memories and emotions.

The brain region linked to memories is activated by familiar music. It just so happens - the same brain region is one of the last areas affected by Alzheimer's and dementia.  

The study’s author was Petr Janata - the associate professor of psychology at UC Davis' Center for Mind and Brain. He explains how personalized music can help people with Alzheimer’s connect to the past:  

“What seems to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head. It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person's face in your mind's eye."  

These memories can help evoke comforting feelings associated with memories. They can also help people gain confidence and feel connected to their identity.

 

Quote about music for dementia patients

Music for Socializing with Dementia

Using music to make meaningful connections

The connection between music and autobiographical memories can help care teams socialize.  

People that are living with dementia are at an increased risk of becoming isolated. Avoiding isolation should be a top priority for care teams. It has been linked to depression and other negative health outcomes for those with dementia.

Humans have an innate need to connect, but it can be challenging for people with memory loss and their loved ones.

People with memory loss face several challenges, including:  

  • Difficulty finding the right words to express themselves.
  • Inability to follow along with certain conversations.
  • A tendency to become more private and introverted.
  • Fear of looking or sounding foolish.  


There are also barriers for care partners:  

  • Forgetfulness can make normal conversation challenging.
  • Repetition can become frustrating.
  • It can be hard to slow down and adapt.


Music therapy strategies can help care partners make connections. Listening to familiar music evokes feelings associated with those memories.  

Specific genres, artists, and songs can encourage reminiscing and inspire comforting feelings. These moments of connection make the time spent together more enjoyable.


Exploring meaningful music

Each person’s musical memories are unique. Discovering how music can help with reminiscing usually requires some experimentation. Once you learn how specific songs or genres can help, the entire team can benefit.  

As you use music to socialize, the following tips can help you get the most out of your sessions:  

  • Share simple stories or memories associated with music.
  • Provide opportunities for the care recipient to share their memories associated with music.  
  • Avoid correcting factual inaccuracies or asking specific follow-up questions. Accept their reality and speak about general memories. The details are not important; the feelings associated with the memories matter most.
  • Listen to music with visitors. Encourage others to share pastimes associated with favorite music.  
  • Sing and/or dance. Studies show that combining music listening with singing and dancing can enhance benefits. 


You can make meaningful connections by simply sitting together and listening to favorite songs. Like the company of friends and family, music can be comforting. Creating a relaxing environment with music can help people with dementia feel at peace and connected to loved ones.


Music for Dementia Care Routines

Using music therapy to encourage movement, routines

Humans have a natural physical reaction to music. Think about what happens when you hear your favorite music? You start shaking your shoulders, tapping your feet, or otherwise moving to the beat of the music.  

There are several connections between music and the brain. Music activates the cerebellum - a brain region involved in coordination and movement. These reactions to music can help caregivers encourage movement and establish routines.  

For example, an upbeat dance song with quick tempos might result in arm swinging. These simple movements can help people feel more alert and active.

Making this type of music part of the care routine can encourage physical activity. There are countless benefits to staying active, including improved mood and cognition.  

Music can also help with activities of daily living that involve movement. Caregivers can play music to help with dressing, bathing, and other daily routines.

 

Making music part of your dementia care plan

Over time, musical cues can become part of a care routine or plan. Routines can help people with dementia maintain greater independence. Activities of daily living become habitual and involve less conscious thought.  

Examples of how music can help with routines include:  

  • Upon waking to help the person orient to their surroundings  
  • While getting ready in the morning to encourage movement  
  • During a showering or bathing routine to distract from angst  
  • With meals to increase appetite or improve swallowing

Music for Dementia Mood Management

Using music to help lessen negative feelings

Memory loss can lead to feelings of anxiety or sadness. Managing emotions becomes difficult for people living with dementia and their caregivers.

Anyone that has ever been in a bad mood knows that dealing with unwelcome emotions is a challenge. It can be hard to address your feelings and shift your focus.  

People with dementia lose their ability to self-initiate these coping strategies. They rely on the people around them to address and lessen uncomfortable feelings.  

Music can be a key component in helping people through these difficult situations. Music can comfort people during stressful moments. It can also help care partners avoid or reduce stressful situations.  

People with dementia are often prescribed antidepressants and other medications. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin studied an alternative intervention - using music.  

Professional caregivers learned how to use tablets to personalize engagement activities. The vast majority of care recipients benefited from tablet sessions. The two types of entertainment that had the best result were music and YouTube. These activities were “strongly associated with improving or maintaining positive moods.”  

Caregivers rated their care recipients’ moods before and after the engagement sessions. They selected one of seven emotions: joyful, happy, relaxed, indifferent, sad, anxious, or angry.  

Over 600 sessions started with care recipients in a negative mood. After engaging those clients with music, over 90% reported clients feeling joyful, happy, or relaxed.

quote from caregiver research study

Using music therapy strategies to ease stressful situations

Social outings, doctor visits, and other unfamiliar situations can be stressful. People with dementia, especially those in the latter stage, can experience sensory overload. Unfamiliar environments can cause worry or frustration.

Listening to a person’s favorite music before or during a stressful situation can help. Music can redirect attention and lift the mood of the room.  

Situations in which music can help reduce stress include:  

  • In the car or while traveling 
  • At the doctor’s office or hospital 
  • During family gatherings or outings  


Caregivers can use music to help inspire feelings of comfort and relaxation. This can be especially helpful for those experiencing pain or angst.  

Sundowning is a term that refers to a state of confusion and anxiety that occurs in the late afternoon. These distressing symptoms often affect people with dementia.  

Caregivers can reduce sundowning symptoms by creating a calming environment. Setting up a room with dim lighting and soothing music can help people feel comfortable and safe.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

MICHAEL POTTEIGER

Michael is the co-founder of Generation Connect - a company that develops mobile apps for home care providers. He worked with families that were caring for loved ones with dementia to develop Care Team Connect™ - a mobile app for dementia caregivers.  

Learn more about our approach to help people living with dementia and their caregivers.

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