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Music Therapy for Dementia

Written by Reagan Greenwood
8 minute readLast updated September 18, 2021

It’s become incredibly popular for memory care communities to incorporate music therapy into the daily lives of residents with dementia. But why?

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“It can be free to use, it helps bring back memories, and it changes a person’s mood and behaviors,” says Scott Smith, a music therapy program trainer and director of education and experience at the Atlanta-based Thrive Senior Living.

In fact, research shows a person’s music memory can remain intact even when they’re experiencing the devastating effects of rapid cognitive decline. Integrating familiar music from one’s past may be beneficial.

“Music is a universal language that touches our souls, enlivens our bodies, and connects us to others,” says Kareen King, a creative engagement specialist who provides therapeutic and personalized musical experiences to seniors in memory care and assisted living communities.

Discover more about the emotional and physical benefits of music for dementia patients, how senior living communities and at-home caregivers use music therapy, and how to create your own playlists for your loved one.

Benefits of music for dementia patients

Music improves understanding, mood, behavior, and communication, according to a review of several studies on music intervention for Alzheimer’s disease. Specifically, music and dementia research suggest music therapy can offer a variety of benefits, including the following:

  • Enhanced memory
  • Lowered stress levels
  • Reduced symptoms of depression
  • Improved sleep
  • Reduced agitation and anxiety
  • Improved cognition

Music therapy can offer physical benefits as well. For example, music with a fun beat can promote light exercise by leading to increased movement. Low-tempo music, meanwhile, has been shown to reduce blood pressure. Understanding how different tempos affect the body and the mind generally may allow caregivers to communicate with and care for specific seniors more effectively.

How music affects the brain of someone with dementia

Music stimulates and engages many parts of a person’s brain. Surprisingly, the neural networks responsible for music memory are usually spared until the later stages of dementia, studies suggest. Music often creates an emotional response, as it works as a cue to evoke specific memories.

“Music can help a resident retrieve memories or important feelings they had from those memories,” says Scott. “For example, a wedding song can make someone with Alzheimer’s feel the way they did on their wedding day.”

The life-changing effects of music on Australian seniors with dementia are evident in this video from ABC Science, “The Power of Music on the Brain | Dementia & Parkinson’s.” In the video, residents’ faces light up as they sing, dance, reminisce, and communicate their feelings.

How memory care communities use music therapy for dementia patients

Activities directors in senior living communities and music therapists have long known the benefits of using music to help residents with dementia. Music therapy is a popular activity in memory care communities because it’s effective, easy to implement, and inexpensive.

King suggests three music therapy techniques when working with seniors in memory care communities:

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  1. Play familiar music and encourage seniors to shake or tap musical instruments to the beat. Instruments can include plastic hand clappers, rhythm sticks, egg shakers, maracas, jingle bells, spoons, or other objects.
  2. Use a drum to create a firm beat, which provides a strong sound foundation and enables seniors to follow the beat or create their own rhythm.
  3. Encourage caregivers and others to sing, dance, or make music with participants.

While King regularly confronts the challenges of dealing with dementia limitations, she knows she’s making a difference.

“For some, therapeutic musical programs are the highlight of their week,” she says.

SingFit: An innovative music therapy program

More than 500 senior living communities and counting use a relatively new musical app, SingFit PRIME, to engage their residents via popular tunes. It has more than 400 preprogrammed songs along with a lyric-prompting feature that says the lyrics right before they’re sung to encourage participation.

“Many communities use SingFit PRIME in memory care up to 10 times a week — once in the morning to promote focus and once in the afternoon to mitigate behaviors associated with sundown syndrome or sundowning,” says Paige Young, a SingFit representative.

Singfit PRIME also features music trivia for cognitive stimulation, as well as movement and visual cues for leaders to demonstrate. Senior living communities that use the app include Sunrise Senior Living, Aegis Senior Living, and Five Star Senior Living.

“One of my favorite things about SingFit is that it has the ability to engage the previously unengaged,” says Young. “We’ve had many facilitators tell us there are residents who previously did not participate in activities until they began SingFit sessions. Once engaged, the conversational abilities of residents sometimes improved, leading to greater connections.”

How caregivers can use music therapy for loved ones

In 2021, SingFit released a new version – SingFit STUDIO Caregiver – designed specifically for those caring for a senior loved one with cognitive decline or dementia at home. After signing up for Simply download the SingFit STUDIO app, and you will receive access to SingFit playlists curated by a music therapist and a library of instructional videos that will help you bring therapeutic music and joyful memories to you and your loved one.

The type of music which works best for dementia patients is individualized music or songs that resonate and have a personal meaning to them. In a review of several studies on music and Alzheimer’s, the research found that personalized music provided the best outcomes in improving mood, reducing agitation, and more.

“Typically, our music taste comes from our teenage years,” Smith says. “Based on the age of the resident, we can determine what era of music would have the biggest impact for them.”

Here’s how to build the perfect playlist for your loved one

1. Find songs with personal meaning.

Listening to old favorites can bring back joy and make potentially troublesome activities of daily living (ADLs) such as bathing or dressing go more smoothly. Do they love classic rock, smooth jazz, or traditional hymns? Depending on their stage of dementia, your loved one may be able to tell you their favorite songs. Older family members may also be able to recall tunes that are special to them.

2. Include stimulating music from their youth.

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Look at the top pop songs from your loved one’s young adult years. For example, if they were born in the 1930s, look at the music charts from the late 1940s and 1950s.

Stimulating big band, swing, and salsa music can inspire dance and movement in people with dementia, providing much needed physical exercise, entertainment, and excitement.

3. Use soothing songs to reduce agitation.

Seniors experiencing agitation, a common dementia behavior, can find great comfort in music.

“I can attest, with some exceptions — music that is familiar and loved by the agitated person somehow naturally and miraculously redirects their emotions and their focus,” says King.

Classical music may also be helpful in calming someone who’s upset, says Scott. “We know a lot of agitation comes from pain or unmet needs, but music can promote rhythmic breathing, relaxation, and help someone who may be anxious calm down,” says Scott.

Listening to soft classical music or non-rhythmic instrumental background music may also improve mood and boost cognition, according to research. Studies show that stimulating the brain using classical music can enhance thinking — also known as “the Mozart effect.”

4. Evoke happy memories through sing-along classics.

Music can act as a simple and accessible time machine. To help bring back happy memories, look for classic or familiar songs with easy lyrics that your loved one likely learned as a child, such as:

  • “This Land Is Your Land”
  • “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”
  • “Yankee Doodle”
  • “Oh! Susanna”
  • “Oh My Darling, Clementine”
  • “When the Saints Go Marching In”
  • “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”
  • “You Are My Sunshine”

“For many residents, most of them get a lot of joy and calmness from well-known church hymns and patriotic music,” says Scott. “But I’m always excited when I find a resident that wants us to turn up the AC/DC or Led Zeppelin.”

Explore song options by checking out the number one charting song from each year beginning in 1940. The University of Kansas also created a music therapy master song list, with categories ranging from early American classics to reggae, musicals, and more.

Optimized copy. Article originally researched and written by A Place for Mom creative copywriter Merritt Whitley.


Meet the Author
Reagan Greenwood

Reagan Greenwood is a writer and assistant editor at A Place for Mom. Her skills allow her to cover the full spectrum of senior living: from assistive product reviews to medications and therapies of interest and concern. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Pittsburg State University.

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