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How Music Therapy Benefits People with Dementia

Music, like laughter or math, is a universal language that reaches across cultures and backgrounds. But can it also be therapeutic for those with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia? Some recent studies, such as one led by researchers at George Mason University in Virginia and another at Boston University, suggest that music may improve cognitive function and even help people with cognitive impairment retain new information. That’s promising news, but the research remains limited as to music’s ability to actually improve memory.

On the other hand, music therapy has long been used to manage behavioral symptoms, including agitation, depression, and apathy. Because music is inherently emotional and is processed differently in the brain than other memories, it can also provide a way to connect with a loved one when other avenues have failed. If nothing else, listening to a favorite song might simply bring a smile—well worth the small effort involved. These tips can help you bring music into your loved one’s routine:

Choose the Songs

What songs do you remember your parent singing? Music from his or her early adulthood is most likely to get the best response, but songs from childhood may work better if your loved one’s dementia is advanced. Try to find 100 to 200 pieces that really resonate.

Create a Mood

Put together playlists for different situations: Calm, soothing music for bedtime or agitation; upbeat songs for mealtimes or to lift spirits on a rainy day. Keep in mind that unfamiliar music might also be useful in some settings, precisely because of the lack of emotional associations.

Avoid Distraction

Television or outside noises may cause sensory overload, so turn them off or shut them out as best you can. If you’re getting the music from a website or internet radio service such as Pandora or Spotify, be sure it’s commercial-free—ads can cause confusion.

Move to the Music

Dance with your loved one, if possible. If he or she has limited mobility, even swaying to the beat, clapping hands, or tapping toes can add to the experience. And, by all means, encourage singing along!

Tweak as Necessary

Pay attention to how your family member reacts and revise the playlists accordingly. It could be that an otherwise happy song brings up sad memories, for example. Or a tune might just become boring after a while.

Enlist Professional Help

If you want more guidance, the American Music Therapy Association has a directory of music therapists. Such service may be reimbursable under Medicare or private insurance, depending on the circumstances. The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America offers further information and hints on incorporating music into your loved one’s life.

The bottom line is that there is lots of potential and no downside to making music a part of your elder’s routine.