Can Music Help People with Alzheimer’s or Other Types of Dementia?
Updated: Sep 16, 2022
The short answer is yes, music can reduce anxiety, bring back memories and increase communication in those who have memory loss, but using music as a type of therapy needs to be done correctly. Just downloading a playlist and putting earphones on someone all day long, is not going to bring results.
The groundbreaking film Alive Inside was the catalyst for bringing iPods and mp3 players into nursing homes. It follows the wonderful work of Dan Cohen, a social worker, who through music, changes the lives of nursing home residents by using music to greatly improve their quality of life.
One of the most memorable scenes from this movie is seeing how music helps Henry become a different person after listening to the music he loves. If you do not have time to see the full film version, in this 6-minute segment you can see how the magic of music allows Henry to communicate again. It is narrated by the late, great Oliver Sacks:
Music is powerful and, in this film, we learn that the area of the brain that responds to music is one of the last areas to succumb to dementia. In my own work, I have seen people in very advanced stages of dementia, when they are no longer connected to the outside world, respond when I sing songs they loved or that had special meaning to them.
It is important to choose a playlist of songs that the person with dementia can relate to and it is also important to be there to observe how they react to the songs they hear.
The screening of Alive Inside caused great excitement and many nursing home residents were given ipods and MP3 players. Unfortunately, in many cases, staff and caregivers placed earphones on their residents without staying to see how they reacted or would leave the music going all day. The music became background noise and sometimes even caused distress which went unnoticed.
“Why Give Someone a Pill if You Can Play Them Some Mozart?”
Diane Kerr on The Dementia Podcast, May 31st 2021 Talking Music: The Thing that Stays (Part 1)
In this podcast Diane Kerr explains how music can help people with dementia, giving wonderful research examples, such as being able to reduce agitation with music rather than meds or playing music during a meal to help people eat more. Kerr also gives some guidance on how to use music correctly to get good results:
1. Do not play the music for more than 20 minutes at a time
2. Watch the person so you can see their reaction.
3. Make sure the person you are working with can concentrate on the music and not be disturbed by other background noises.
I highly recommend listening to Diane Kerr’s two podcasts on music and to follow The Dementia Podcast with Prof Colm Cunningham. This podcast brings the latest research and practices for people who have been diagnosed with dementia and always puts the person with memory loss first in the equation of care.
The Validation Technique of Singing
In Validation, a method of communicating with people who have memory loss, music is a very important technique that we use, especially for people who are in more advanced stages of dementia when they are less verbal or not verbal at all.
In Validation we sing rather than just listen to music. In this way we can match the rhythm of our clients, by singing faster or slower, louder or quieter in response to our clients’ emotional state at that moment. There is no better example of how music can help someone who has dementia, than this unforgettable clip of Naomi Feil using Validation to communicate with Gladys Wilson. Naomi uses several Validation techniques to connect with Gladys and then she sings songs Gladys knew from church. To me, the results are nothing short of miraculous.
I cannot even count the number of times I have viewed this video, but every single time I am touched.
Find Your Playlist Easily
If you have Spotify, you can begin using music right now by finding the perfect playlist for yourself, your loved one or your client. This lovely free site makes it super easy to create a playlist by age and country. Try it out here: BELLABOT
In the womb we already responded to the rhythm of our mother’s heartbeat and all through our lives, rhythm and music continue to be an integral part of what we do and who we are. By finding those songs and rhythms that have an emotional attachment, we can use music and song to connect on a very emotional level with those who have memory loss. Just remember to share these moments together for a great impact.
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