Believe it or not, music is one of the best ways to care for seniors with dementia. It’s not unheard of for a person in the late stages of dementia to improve radically after being exposed to music. Music also helps people with other conditions such as neurological damage; they can learn to move better, improve their memories and speak again. In the area of dementia research, some studies show that music decreases depression, agitation and problematic behaviors while increasing brain function, physical flexibility and sociability.
Music Engages All Parts of the Brain
People have personal connections to music, even if these connections are indirect (for example, X song was playing when you heard your daughter had gone into labor). Hearing music triggers emotional reactions and long-term memory.
Some areas of the brain such as the limbic system stay pretty much intact as dementia progresses. The hippocampus, part of the limbic system, stores long-term memory and emotional ties.
Producing music rather than just listening to it strengthens the cerebellum, the area of the brain that controls movement and balance. It also strengthens the limbic and cognitive areas.
Types of Therapy
Members of the American Music Therapy Association use both active and passive music therapy. Not surprisingly, music that is pleasant and familiar has the most impact. Instruments in active music run the gamut from drums and voices to people themselves (dancing).
Therapists work with patients, family and caregivers to set goals for dementia therapy and find appropriate music matches. Examples of goals are to decrease agitation and to increase conversational skills. In later stages of dementia, a music goal will more likely focus on basic motor skills.
The anecdotal evidence for music is strong. It’s a feature in many programs that care for seniors. Hosting a drum circle or listening to some tunes never hurts.