Dementia and Music Therapy

This week a few different videos went viral. We shared one on our Twitter feed, in fact, of an infant who seems to be so emotionally moved by the sound of his mother’s singing that he sheds tears which appear to have no other explanation. This video can be interpreted in many ways (some think the baby is crying because he wants his mother to stop singing) but it undeniably sparks the conversation about music—how it relates to our most primal instincts and tugs at our most fundamental human emotions.
If all humans, of any age and of any mental capacity can be moved by music, imagine the impact it can have on a person with dementia. When I was in graduate school for social work, specializing in senior care, I did a clinical internship at a dementia care community called Silverado Senior Living in Escondido, CA. Residents there were offered both music therapy and musical entertainment. Both programs were considered favorites by the residents, even those in late stages of the Alzheimer’s. And they were also considered “successful” by administrators and family members. The “why” is the most fascinating part…
The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America describes this phenomena, the power of music, best on their website’s article titled “Education and Care” which explains, “Music can shift mood, manage stress-induced agitation, stimulate positive interactions, facilitate cognitive function, and coordinate motor movements…because rhythmic and other well-rehearsed responses require little to no cognitive or mental processing.”
In using music for therapy or entertainment with people with dementia, whether at home, at adult day care, or in a residential facility, consider the following tips:
– Choose music and songs from a time period when the person was in teens to mid-20s. These melodies will most likely carry the strongest emotional response.
– Remember that you cannot control the emotional reaction the person with dementia will experience. If he or she has a sad memory attached to a certain song, then expect a negative emotional reaction. Simply try another song to see if it elicits a more positive emotional response.
– Sometimes it takes several songs, or several minutes of music for the person to connect to the sounds and melodies. If you don’t see a visual response, don’t assume the person is not enjoying the music. He or she may not be able to express the connection.
– In a group setting, choose “sing along” songs whenever possible. Participation can be contagious in a group, and you can lift the spirits of the whole room with upbeat tempos.
– If your audience is able, by all means, encourage them to dance as well!
Remember, music is a powerful tool that in many regards creates magic—and sometimes that magic is seeing a person with dementia re-engaged in their environment, smiling, singing, and dancing, living in the moment.

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