Dementia and Music Therapy : Reconnecting to Life

Discover how music therapy can improve the cognitive and emotional well-being of dementia patients. Learn about the science behind the connection between the brain and music, and how it can decrease negative behaviors and increase sociability.

Dementia and Music Therapy : Reconnecting to Life
Dementia and music therapy

It is Saturday- dementia and music therapy day.  I will never forget that day. I was working on a senior behavioral health unit. The activities director had asked a friend of mine to come in and play her guitar and piano. This was a treat for the patients we had on the unit at the time.

We had a patient at the time, Agnes, in the very late stages of dementia. She was no longer able to care for herself. In fact, she was total care. She did not respond to anything that we said or did. She would just sit back in her reclining chair. We would place her in the chair and just sit… until we moved her to return her to her room.

As my friend played the guitar, she would take a seat next to different patients. She would play a tune based on a request or information that we had gotten from the family or the chart.

On this particular day, when she sat next to Agnes, there was no response at all. I told my friend that Agnes used to sing for the church choir and loved gospel songs. I learned from the family that Agnes started singing in the church choir when she was young. It had always been a part of her life.

As my friend started to play and sing some gospel songs she knew… a great transformation took place over Agnes’ face. Her face lit up, her eyes, instead of glazed over, started to actually watch my friend sing as she played the guitar. Agnes actually tried to sing with the guitar player. And we did not even know she could still talk! It touched the hearts of those that have provided care for her over the time she had been in the hospital.

What occurs with the brain and music?

It is not known how the brain processes music. Scientists do know is that that music is processed in many different parts of the brain. An individual may have a personal experience. A piece of music is associated with that experience. This becomes the stimulus for memories. Even in the late stages of dementia, a person may feel emotions… and even the memory of the experience when they hear that piece of music.

Researchers believe there is a link between the brain's auditory cortex and the limbic system. The limbic system is where emotions are processed.  Researchers believe that individuals with dementia, and other neurological diseases… can actually improve their ability to physically move and remember things by listening to music.

Studies show those with dementia respond to familiar and pleasurable music. It has been proven to have an effect on negative or challenging behaviors. The music can decrease stress, agitation and anxiety. This is a behavioral intervention that has been successful… at avoiding the use of medications.

Music was also found to increase sociability… and the cognitive ability of the dementia patient.  Music cannot stop the disease process. But it can improve the quality of life of the person suffering from this terrible disease.

See the ABC news special on music and Dementia here

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More on Understanding Dementia Behaviors here