Joyful Memories: How Music Therapy Helps Seniors with Dementia
Stevie Wonder once said, “Music, at its essence, is what gives us memories. And the longer a song has existed in our lives, the more memories we have of it.” As it turns out, there’s some science to back this up. Music is strongly connected to our memories, unique in its ability to evoke emotions and powerful, vivid memories. This connection is especially strong for people with Alzheimer’s disease—research shows that the musical memory regions of the brain are some of the last to be affected by the disease.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, accounting for 60-80% of all cases. A progressive brain disorder, it affects memory, thinking, and behavior over time, leading to difficulty with communication, expressing emotions, and social interaction. But now, we’re learning how music therapy can address some of these challenges and improve the quality of life for individuals with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.
How Does Music Therapy Help People with Dementia?
When we listen to music, many different areas of the brain light up, including those responsible for memory, emotion, and movement. Music therapy is simply a meaningful and positive way to engage all of these brain regions, helping to stimulate cognitive function, improve mood, and even alleviate pain.
Facilitates Cognitive Function
Research has shown that music therapy can improve cognitive function and provide relief for other symptoms of neurological impairment. One 2019 study found that music therapy effectively improves memory, alleviates confusion, and facilitates speech in individuals with Alzheimer's disease. In some circumstances, music can be even more effective than certain medical interventions like medication.
Older adults who receive music therapy show improvements in:
- Executive functions (skills that help control impulses and self-regulate behavior)
Relieves Pain & Promotes Healing
For many years, researchers have been fascinated by the pain-relieving effects of music. Though we are still determining the exact ways music accomplishes this analgesic effect, we know that it is real. It’s believed that music activates sensory pathways in the brain that compete with the pathways responsible for pain.
This, combined with music’s ability to keep people engaged and elicit powerful emotional responses, can interrupt and distract from painful experiences—even those associated with Alzheimer’s disease. With 50–80% of people with dementia experiencing daily, chronic pain, music is an important and promising way to provide meaningful comfort.
Helps Manage Anxiety & Stress
Mental health is a common challenge for people living with any form of dementia. Thankfully, music therapy can also reduce agitation and anxiety. When your loved one’s mental well-being is supported, their quality of life improves significantly, allowing them to live more good days with a sense of purpose and meaning.
Caregivers benefit, too. Music therapy not only helps reduce stress on the person with dementia but also the people caring for them, whether that be in-home care providers or family members. When people with dementia can focus, communicate, and engage calmly, caring for them can be more of an overall positive experience.
Boosts Socialization & Communication
A study published in The Gerontologist found that music therapy improves social interaction and communication in individuals with dementia. Socialization is an important aspect of psychological well-being, but Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia often make communication difficult. Communication barriers can be taxing on both the person with dementia and their loved ones.
Music therapy can build relationship bridges between families, encouraging “emotional expression, free reminiscence, and open reciprocal communication.” These results can turn a music therapy session into a powerful bonding experience where cherished memories are both explored and forged.
At ComForCare, that’s what dementia care is all about: maximizing joy and meaningful experiences throughout every stage of the disease.
What Type of Music is Best for Dementia?
Music therapy can be enjoyed in a variety of ways, including listening to old favorites through headphones, singing, playing instruments, and even improvising. The best music simply depends on your loved one’s preferences, tastes, and cultural background. Music that reminds them of their youth or cultural heritage may be particularly effective in stirring memories and emotions.
If you are caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's disease, consider incorporating music therapy into their care plan. Here are some tips:
- Choose familiar music: The old songs really are the best when it comes to dementia care. Choosing songs your loved one knew and enjoyed between the ages of 7 and 25 may be ideal.
- Create a relaxing environment: Create a comfortable and relaxing environment for music therapy to reduce anxiety and agitation. Focus on lighting the room well, reducing background noise, and arranging comfortable seating.
- Encourage participation: Encourage your loved one to participate in music therapy by singing along or playing instruments—even if that just means tapping out the beat with your toes!
- Use music throughout the day: Find ways to incorporate music into the daily routine. You might play calming music during meals or use upbeat music during exercise.
Joyful Memories®: In-Home Dementia Care with Meaning
ComForCare’s Joyful Memories program was designed to create connections with older adults. Our team’s understanding of the power of music inspired us to create this program, embracing the therapeutic benefits of music for people living with dementia. Using evidence-based methods, our caregivers can facilitate one-on-one, personalized music therapy programs in the comfort of your loved one’s own home.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Joyful Memories program and how in-home dementia care can benefit your family, reach out to ComForCare today!
ComForCare: Next-Generation Dementia Care in the Comfort of Home
With over 200 locations in North America, ComForCare is dedicated to the health and well-being of people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. 95% of our offices are DementiaWise® certified, meaning our caregivers have undergone comprehensive training to support improved quality of life for people with dementia. Find your nearest ComForCare location to learn more!