One of the most successful approaches to help dementia is not a medicine, an exercise, or a certain product. It is not hard to find or expensive to get. It can make forgotten words start to flow and turn a sour or tired mood into one of joy and energy.
What is this magical approach that works so well in dementia care? It is simply music. But why does it work so well?
A Meaningful Activity for Dementia Care
Have you ever heard a song and suddenly a strong memory of an occasion or person comes to mind? Music often has emotion tied to it, which makes it a stronger memory. Because of that, music can trigger memories that otherwise might not be accessible for the person with dementia. It can be a wonderful way for family and friends to connect, especially when typical conversation may be difficult for the person. Music can also have ties to certain events or holidays, such as patriotic music, spiritual music, or childhood songs. This again can trigger memories and even help with orientation to time of year - for example, Jingle Bells sung at Christmas time.
I have witnessed firsthand, in my work as an occupational therapist, people with dementia who cannot remember names of long-time friends or what they ate for lunch, but can remember the words and melody of familiar songs. Why is that? Music is unique because it is not stored in just one part of the brain; instead, it is stored in both sides of the brain. Also, different aspects of the music are processed in different parts of the brain; for example, the words, melody, and tempo are all processed differently. Because music is in multiple places across the brain, it is more likely to be spared from the brain damage of Alzheimer's or other form of dementia.
Effective in All Stages of Dementia
The last reason music works so well in dementia care, is that it works in all stages of dementia. Those in early stage dementia can listen to new music and new styles, as a way to stimulate cognition. They can also try their hand at producing music, such as singing in a choir, playing hand bells, or even a drumming group.
In the later stages of dementia, familiar and favorite music can be played for the person, to foster positive emotions, connections with other people, and as a meaningful and engaging activity. The Music and Memory program has successfully brought personalized music to thousands of nursing home residents in every state of the US and in countries beyond. Research on the program has shown it to be effective in reducing the behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia, so incorporating music at all stages of dementia care can be so beneficial.
Official Music Therapy is also very successful. Music Therapist Kristin says "Family members have said that music therapy gave them an opportunity to sing or dance with their loved one again." To learn more, visit the American Music Therapy Association.
Music is powerful - even magical. I have many times experience goosebumps on my arms when playing in my college band or when listening to a powerful, live musical event. And there are certain songs that bring me right back to a particular moment or person in my life. I am sure you can recount similar experiences. Using the power and magic of music with people with dementia is an easy, accessible, and inexpensive 'therapy' that can have incredible results. It doesn't matter if you sing out of key - just enjoy the meaningful moments together!