There is a growing body of scientific evidence that suggests music for dementia can have real positive benefits.
In this guide, we take a look at the latest thinking around music and the role it can play in supporting people who are living with dementia.
Today, most of us know someone impacted by dementia.
There are currently around 900,000 people with dementia in the UK. This number is expected to rise sharply in the coming years as the size of the older population increases.
With no immediate cure on the horizon, any treatments that can ease distress are important - and music for dementia is near the top of that list.
Here’s a summary of what we will cover in this article:
- Why music forms some of our earliest memories and why this is critical in dementia treatment.
- How music is a tool that can connect us to the wider community – at any age!
- The science behind music for dementia – why can music unlock emotions and memories in a way few other things can.
- How you can use music to support someone living with dementia.
- The tangible benefits – and there are many – when using music for dementia sessions.
Music for dementia - how the connection begins
Music has the potential to touch all our hearts.
Whether it is listening to The Beatles, Frank Sinatra or children rehearsing a Christmas concert – music finds a way to influence our emotions and moods.
Music has the power to make us feel happy and the power to make us feel sad.
From a young age we tune into music. Researchers say even before we are born, we are listening to music from the safety of the womb.
It’s safe to say we are naturally attuned to music.
We learn to enjoy music, long before we can speak.
This continues throughout our lives, even when our verbal abilities may be lost.
In fact, musical aptitude and appreciation are two of the last remaining cognitive abilities that are found in those with dementia.
Music connects us to the people around us.
And for those affected by dementia it can reconnect us yet again.
Our loved ones, who may be living with dementia, can find themselves again through music.
This is why many groups and residential care homes; charities and organisations are now tapping into music as a therapy for those living with dementia.
It has the power to reach those with dementia at whatever stage they are at in life.
Music imprints itself on the brain deeper than any other human experience. Music evokes emotion, and emotion can bring with it memory…it brings back the feeling of life when nothing else can.
Inside the mind of dementia
As we understand it, our memory is constantly storing, organising and recovering information from sensory input.
Music is part of this input and is highly linked to emotion.
Therefore, music can trigger memories. It can help unlock precious moments from our past.
Music offers aural cues that can aid memory recall.
Our loved ones living with dementia can recall an event once again and may even be able to communicate that memory verbally.
It means that sometimes without the need for pharmaceutical drugs music can help a loved one recall a long-lost memory.
What’s the science?
Research carried out by the University of California in 2009 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.
And that same brain region is one of the last areas affected by Alzheimer’s and dementia. There’s more science here on what is dementia.
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.
How is music for dementia used to help?
They use music to trigger memories, feeling and emotions.
When organisations such as these visit care homes, it becomes a social occasion.
Music is used to help stimulate conversation, laughter and physical activity.
These activities can help our loved ones to express feelings and connect with memories, which may be easier to recall.
This might involve playing music that is significant, such as favourite songs, their wedding music or a song from their child’s concert 40 years ago.
Many music students visit care homes as part of their training. They can be surprised by the impact their playing or singing can have on residents.
It is not uncommon to meet a resident who may not remember their name, but they can recollect every word in a song.
Without access to music, this may never be discovered.
Just when you thought communication and memories may be lost, they are revived.
Music as a therapy for dementia
A trained music therapist can also be used in a residential care setting.
These professionals may work with an individual or a group using music to support and help people express themselves and communicate with others.
Music therapy has also been shown to reduce anxiety for some people with dementia.
It may also lead to improvements in their thinking, feeling, perception, mood and behaviour.
However, streaming just any kind of music into a care home setting could be detrimental. As some music may trigger sad and upsetting memories for our loved ones.
Therefore, there is no top 40 list of songs to play for those with dementia.
Make the music personalised…as we would for ourselves
Generally, music should be tailored to the individuals. Developing a playlist is a good idea. Also, involving the person with dementia is key, what do they like, not like?
As a relative involved with your loved one’s care plan, you may also suggest songs.
There is some recent evidence to demonstrate that people remember most music between the ages of 10 and 30. So, it may mean playing songs from people’s childhood or young adulthood. Find out what was played during that timeframe.
Music therapy in a home can be simple.
But don’t overload your loved one, sometimes they may also want some peace and quiet.
The physical impact of music
Music can help reduce:
- heart rate
- blood pressure
- as well as triggering the release of endorphins which are chemicals which can help distract us from pain.
Campaigning for music for dementia
Such is the power of music one campaign group in the UK is lobbying for it to become part of every care plan across the country.
Music for Dementia is a national campaign to make music an integral part of dementia care arguing that music is a necessity for people with dementia.
The campaign group works with more than 200 charities and organisations.
Campaigners argue that no matter what the age or social and economic status, those with dementia should have music as a part of their care plan.
The group is lobbying for change in care policy.
The group highlights various evidence including the 2018 Cochrane Review which examined music interventions for people with dementia.
In 22 trials it found that music-based interventions helped reduce depression and improve well-being and quality of life.
The campaign pulls out some powerful information and cites that music therapy reduces agitation as well as the need for medication for those with dementia.
And it’s not just music, take a look at this piece on ‘can hypnosis help dementia?’
The benefits of music for dementia
- Helps people with dementia remember precious memories
- Helps reduce anxiety and blood pressure
- Overall good for physical health reducing pain and recovery time
- Enhances mood
- Alleviates tension and fear, allowing for better sleep
- The music can be used as a ‘get up and go’ stimulant, encouraging an individual to go for a walk, a run or do some stretching
- Gives an individual back their identity and sense of self, encouraging self-expression
- Encourages physical exercise and increases co-ordination and mobility
- Encourages social interaction, improving cognition and speech
When to introduce music for dementia therapy
It’s always important to discuss people’s personalised care plans with them.
So, it’s a good idea to talk to someone living with dementia about music and why you think it may help them.
Tell them you will be introducing music and ask them about the songs they like or don’t like.
Talk to them about how you will do this. Will it be through a radio, an iPhone, what kind of device will you use? This matters.
There’s more here on what are the early signs of dementia.
Start off slowly
It’s a good idea to play the music relatively quietly to start and perhaps gradually turn up the volume.
Encourage that person to sing along or get up and dance if they want to. Never push it. When it becomes too much of an intrusion or even distressing, turn it off and try again another day.
It’s important to avoid overstimulation and competing noises. Is the TV and radio on at the same time? Turn them off.
Of course, there are obvious seasonal times for introducing music like Christmas and birthdays.
Encourage a small party, it’s an excuse for a sing-along, or a dance. This can become an enjoyable social activity, as well awaken fond memories and thoughts from the past.
Music for dementia can be a powerful tool.
It can unlock people’s mind and give them back something of their true selves. It can open their world all over again.
Music may help your loved one find a part of themselves again.
It can give back to them a sense of self-identity.
If only for a few moments, your loved one can rejoice in their memories – and that is a wonderful thing.