Music Therapy Awakens Dementia Patients

There’s no denying the effect that music has on the human soul. It brings us together, makes us feel emotion, and in many cases, sparks a memory. You may not think that the connection between music and memory retrieval is overly relevant, however, for someone with dementia, it can make a world of difference.

Imagine — feeling as though you’re lost in your own body — confused and alone. For those with developed dementia, their memories slowly slip away until their loved ones feel as though they’re simply a shell of the person they once were. It’s hard to watch and although many feel hopeless, there may be a treatment that trumps any medication.

Dementia and Music — What’s the Connection?

For those who suffer from late stage dementia, moments of clarity can be rather rare — yet incredibly special. At this time, there is no cure for dementia and when aiming to manage certain symptoms, medications can create new, troublesome side effects.

If you haven’t already, watch the captivating documentary, Alive Inside — just make sure you have a box of tissues handy, because it’s quite touching. As they explain, music is a powerful stimulus, one that connects us to our true identity. Although some patients were completely unresponsive, as soon as they heard a familiar song, they did, in fact, come alive.

Instead of prescribing a pill, doctors across the globe are trying a new approach — music therapy. Sure, it won’t slow down the progression of the disease in terms of brain physiology, but it will treat the soul of patients who feel as though all of their memories have been slowly slipping away.

Music has the ability to reach key areas of the brain in which other forms of communication cannot. Not only does this improve a patient’s quality of life, but it is also an incredible experience for their loved ones. It’s a way for them to reconnect and share a heartfelt moment, especially after feeling helpless for so many years.

When utilizing music therapy, it has the ability to improve mood, increase alertness, reduce the use of medication, help manage agitation, reduce isolation, and enhance one’s overall quality of life. It’s powerful and is something that everyone has access to, but what does the research have to say?

Research Supports Positive Observations

Regardless of the current research, for anyone who has experienced the power of music in relation to their loved one with dementia, you know that there’s something there — something that can awaken their inner self. Since dementia affects behavioural, psychological, and cognitive behavior, studies are generally rather complex.

While examining Singing for the Brain, one key study, published in Dementia, found that improvements were shown in terms of relationships, social inclusiveness, memory, mood, and perhaps most importantly —  it helped participants better accept and cope with their dementia. Music and singing are providing patients and their families with hope.

At this point, a number of studies are focusing on the use of music therapy as an effective replacement for antipsychotics, which are no longer recommended for dementia patients. In order to address symptoms such as aggression and agitation, personalized playlists are currently being studied.

One of these studies, which is currently being implemented, will take a total of three years. Researchers from both the University of California Davis and the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing, are taking part in a $1.4 million dollar study. A total of 4,500 individualized iPods will be distributed to 300 nursing homes to better understand long-term effectiveness.

Just as musical aptitude is one of the first areas to develop, it’s one of the last to go within one’s elderly years. The same is true for dementia patients and the ability to appreciate, which is why music is such an extraordinary, non-invasive way to reach a patient beyond their disease.

If you would like to try this at home with your loved one, select songs that are engaging and stick to genres they enjoy best. Also, join in and sing along with them if you find they’re responding well. When a patient sings, the left side of the brain is activated; whereas listening to music itself stimulates the right area of the brain — meaning, your loved one can exercise more brain power at once.

Start with some classics, such as songs from The Sound of Music or even the Wizard of Oz. The results so far have been truly remarkable and based on new research, we may unlock more clues, helping us find a cure. For the latest research and resources, please visit Alzheimer Society of Canada.

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