There is a wealth of evidence that supports the link between music and mental health. And for dementia patients, in particular, research has shown that music therapy can significantly improve and support mood, alertness, and engagement. As a result, it has been found that music therapy sessions can often reduce the use of medication. But how is music therapy already being used in care settings? And what can care practitioners do to help their own residents benefit from the power of music?
Over the past year, a number of viral videos have succinctly demonstrated the true power of music on the minds of people with dementia. From the 92-year-old woman with dementia performing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata to the former composer with Alzheimer’s who racked up 1.5 million views when he played a piece he had created.
The advantages of using music in care homes are well documented. As the Alzheimer’s Society highlights, care homes music therapy can help to manage and reduce agitation, isolation, depression and anxiety in people with dementia. However, while it is estimated that 80% of people in care homes have dementia or very significant memory problems, just 5% currently have access to art and music. Clearly, there is an exciting opportunity here for many great providers to explore the potential of music therapy for their own residents.
For healthcare assistants not already tapping into the power of care homes music therapy, patients with opportunities for musical expression and experimentation can easily be achieved for little or no cost.
Of course, some care homes will choose to bring in dedicated music therapists complete with a selection of string and percussion instruments. However, all care staff have the power to deliver their own brand of music therapy – and even playing the radio in common areas can spark powerful memories of friends and family among the people they care for. Ideally, music should be specifically tailored to the choices of individuals – and people with dementia are well able to express those preferences.
Dementia UK advises that carers choose music that the person likes. If you aren’t sure, look to see if they have a record or tape collection. If not, investigate what were the popular musicians and songs from an era in their youth and give it a try. It has been suggested that musical memories stored between the ages of 10 and 30 are most powerful, so this may take a little working out.
Internet services such as Spotify have lots of music you can listen to for free, through your computer or smartphone – although be aware of loud adverts. Watch to see how the person reacts. If they seem uncomfortable or distressed, turn it off and desist for a while, before trying some different music at a different time. If they respond positively then use the music to engage with them. Do they tap their fingers? Or hum along? You can try doing so too. Get it right, and the benefits for dementia care residents are numerous and significant, with engagement in music therapy being shown to improve awareness, wellbeing, and quality of life.
As NHS England’s National Clinical Director for Dementia, Professor Alistair Burns, explains: Listening to music provides a ready resource for enjoyment and entertainment, especially when shared with families and loved ones in a shared experience”. On the science behind the phenomenon, he highlights that, “Musical memory is a form of implicit memory, usually hardwired into the brain unless prone to the changes in the brain which usually herald dementia. There is evidence from scientific studies that listening to music lights up the brain in many places, reaching the parts that others can’t. The recent All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing (APPGAHW) showed the benefits of music”.
We all know that listening to and enjoying music is a universal experience, with songs from our past igniting memories of fun times with friends, first kisses or lost loves. Bringing music into older people’s lives enables them to relive bygone times and for those living with dementia, tapping into musical memory can be the key to unlocking parts of the brain which are inaccessible using visual or verbal cues.