When it comes to the brain, music is incredibly powerful. Hearing – and the auditory part of the brain – is one of the first senses to fully develop, meaning that we can remember sounds and songs from our childhood long before we even learned how to communicate.
The power of music is not lost on the dementia care world, and more and more care professionals are now turning to music therapy to help people living with dementia.
The impact that music has on our day-to-day life is huge; an upbeat song on a day when we are feeling low can almost instantly lift our mood, or a piece of music from our wedding day can send us hurtling back to that exact moment and all the joyous memories it entails. And it is for this reason, that music is an integral tool to helping those who are living with dementia feel secure, happy and relaxed, as well as helping to exercise the brain.
The auditory system is the first in the brain to fully function before birth and therefore you are receptive and exposed to music much earlier than anything else. As those living with dementia are often able to recall memories from further in the past, music is a perfect way to trigger these memories and spark conversations.
Music has also been greatly utilised as a way to engage with those living with dementia who may have communication difficulties. The recognition of familiar songs can help to improve someone’s mood greatly and encourage interaction in activities.
What is Music Therapy?
Run by music students, therapists, or specialist groups such as Golden Oldies, Lost Chord, Music in Mind, and the Alzheimer’s Society’s Singing for the Brain, music therapy sessions usually involve group activities such as singalongs and percussive sessions.
The therapists involved say that the sessions are helpful in many ways when it comes to dementia. Not only does the music involved have the ability to stir memories even those living in the very late stage of dementia, the act of enjoying something together in a group also helps people to interact, communicate, and have fun with others – vital social activities that help to work against feelings of loneliness, exclusion, and depression.
What are The Benefits of Using Music When Someone has Dementia?
Music is thought to be highly beneficial for someone with dementia, and according to NHS England engaging in activities which use music can help to improve the quality of life for those living with dementia and their carers. Something which is universally enjoyed, music holds a whole host of benefits from aiding with relaxation, to sparking memories.
As a result of music therapy, carers have reported some incredible and inspiring outcomes. Those living with dementia are said to have improved moods and reduced agitation after therapy sessions while those in the very late stages, who have lost the ability to communicate or move around very easily, will often lift their heads and engage with others for the first time in a very long period of inactivity. One music therapist even remembers a lady who had once been an organ player but who had now lost the ability to speak or recognise anyone. Upon hearing someone singing a favourite hymn, the therapist recalls, the lady was able to sit at a piano and accompany the singer perfectly.
As previously mentioned, music has strong links to memory as the auditory senses are one of the first to develop, which means we have a whole host of memories closely tied to sound. You can use music which is familiar to your loved one to encourage them to talk about memories they associate with it. Having the opportunity to recall past, happy, memories can really lift the mood of those living with dementia and provide a sense of accomplishment.
Listening to calming music can be soothing for the majority of us; and this is especially true for those living with dementia. Why not choose some calming, soothing sounds to help your loved one relax, or perhaps opt for music you know they love which ignites memories, as this can also be comforting for them.
Sensory exploration has been proven as highly beneficial for those living with dementia as the more often they engage with their senses, the longer they generally have use of them. Music not only stimulates the auditory senses but can also be used to encourage the use of the others.
Whilst simply listening to music is brilliant, other activities such as singing which can be combined with dancing, can be excellent activities for boosting mood, getting light exercise and encouraging social interactions.
Communication can sometimes become difficult as someone progresses along their dementia journey, so anything you can do to open up conversation with your loved one can be beneficial. Listening to music in a group setting is the perfect way to do this; it will encourage conversation and help combat any feelings of isolation and loneliness. Why not ask gentle questions around a certain song, talk about memories surrounding a piece of music such as their wedding song, or simply just listen together and see if your loved one volunteers stories or memories.
Music is so versatile; you can incorporate it into a number of different activities. To encourage reminiscence why not play music whilst looking through a memory box; if you link the music to the photos being looked through this can really help to spark memories and encourage conversations.
Another way to encourage conversation is to organise a group listening session where everyone can get involved and discuss the music being played. Another brilliant activity is to watch a film with a strong soundtrack, as this engages the sense along with aiding in reminiscence.