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Music and Dementia: The Powerful Effects of Personalized Music and Music Therapy

Merritt Whitley
By Merritt WhitleyOctober 23, 2020
Elderly woman wearing headphones, listening to music and moving her arms to its rhythm.

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

“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. “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 to create a playlist for your loved one, top songs for seniors with dementia, and music therapy activities.

What are the 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 can:

  • Enhance memory
  • Lower stress levels
  • Reduce symptoms of depression
  • Improve sleep
  • Reduce agitation and anxiety
  • Improve cognition

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.

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How does music affect the brain of someone with dementia?

Music exercises and engages many parts of a person’s brain. The neural networks responsible for music memory are usually spared until the later stages of dementia, studies suggest. What’s more, music can work as a cue to evoke specific memories, often creating an emotional response. “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, reminiscence, and communicate their feelings.

What music is best for people with dementia?

What type of music ultimately works best for your loved one? The simple answer 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,” says Smith. “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.

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

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. 

3. Use soothing songs to reduce agitation.

Seniors experiencing agitation — a 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 can also improve mood and boos cognition, according to research. Studies show 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”

Top song recommendations for dementia patients

“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.”

Thousands of musical choices exist, but King’s favorite songs for dementia patients include:

  • “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain When She Comes”
  • “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”
  • “Happy Days Are Here Again”
  • “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”
  • “You Are My Sunshine”
  • “The More We Get Together”
  •  “God Bless America”
  • “Amazing Grace”

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

How memory care communities use music as therapy

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 uses three music therapy exercises when working with seniors with dementia:

  1. Playing familiar music and encouraging 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. Using 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. Encouraging 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 in a growing number of communities

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.”

A version for caregivers will be released in 2021, according to Young.



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Merritt Whitley
Author
Merritt Whitley

Merritt Whitely is an editor at A Place for Mom. She developed health content for seniors at Hearing Charities of America and the National Hearing Aid Project. She’s also managed multiple print publications, blogs, and social media channels for seniors as the marketing manager at Sertoma, Inc.

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