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Music Therapy Can Help Reach People With Dementia

-Jeff Schweikert, Owner of Home Care Assistance in St. Louis.  Tuesday, June 2nd


People familiar with Alzheimer’s know this: The memory loss and other effects are retrograde. People lose memories, skills, and abilities in the opposite order from how they were acquired.

People familiar with language acquisition know this: Melodies and songs are easy to learn and aid language learning. We’ve all had the experience of busting out – word-for-word – to sing along with a song we haven’t heard in 20 years. That’s because music memory is processed across many parts of the brain and is thus preserved better than language memory alone.

Together, these facts point towards the effectiveness of music therapy for people with Alzheimer’s. If songs are some of the first things we learn, they might also be some of the last things we remember.

Music therapy was established in 1950. It was designed to improve physical and emotional health through the use of music, either with listening, song writing, performing, exploring lyrics or other activities related to music. It’s most often used as part of stress management programs.

While music therapy is an emerging field, music itself has many benefits for health and stress management, and can be used in daily life to relieve stress and promote wellness. (This is not formal music therapy, but it can be effective for stress relief.)

How it can be used to help Alzheimer’s Patients

Since music therapy uses the brain’s multi-layered processing of music, there is recent and intense interest in its applications with Alzheimer’s. A study at the University of Iowa showed that simple activities like singing and moving to music decreased wandering and disruptive behaviors among people with Alzheimer’s at nursing facilities.

True, certified music therapists are trained musicians who play instruments and sing and are trained to use music therapeutically. It’s principles – that music relaxes people both physically and psychologically, can relieve pain, create emotional intimacy – however, can be used much less formally.

Using music to trigger memory and engagement in someone with Alzheimer’s requires a bit of homework. Someone needs to find out either what the person’s favorite songs were or, if that isn’t possible, try out a variety of songs that were popular when they were young. Songs from people’s teenage and young adult years tend to be particularly effective.

People may sing along, or even want to dance. Music has the power to work throughout the body, triggering muscle memory of anything from intricate dance steps to simple hand clapping or foot tapping in time with the rhythm.

Music therapy’s ability to reach the body was shown in a study from the American Society of Neurorehabilitation that compared two groups of stroke victims one of which was given traditional physical therapy and the other group which received music therapy. The music therapy group showed greater physical improvement towards walking in a shorter period of time.