How Music Helps Dementia Patients

Old sheet music

By Alison Wood, Contributing Writer

Most people, whatever their age, enjoy music in one form or another, whether that’s attending concerts, playing a musical instrument, or just tapping one’s foot in time to a track playing on the radio.

We all know that music can lift our mood, evoke memories from our past, and bring us a great deal of joy. What you may or may not know is that the positive qualities of music can be helpful for dementia patients as well.

Music is easily available and enjoyable

One of the main advantages of music is that it’s easily available and an enjoyable activity that dementia patients can share with family members and friends.

It’s not always easy to find activities that the whole family can enjoy, but music is one of them. It’s just important to curate the music carefully and make sure it’s something the dementia patient recognizes and enjoys listening to.

Music can affect our mood

Music can have a very definite effect on mood. Upbeat music can give us a lift while relaxing music can calm us. It’s also been demonstrated that listening to music can release dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a naturally occurring chemical that is associated with pleasure and has been linked to improving attention, focus, memory, and learning.

Music can help us express ourselves

Some patients will lose their ability to communicate verbally but music offers a way to express thoughts and feelings through movement and sound.

Some people with dementia will also enjoy dancing to music and this can be a physical outlet for them and a healthy way to get a little exercise.

Music brings back memories

A study by Boston University found that music can help improve memory in Alzheimer’s Disease patients. In the research, when lyrics were set to music, as opposed to just being said, they were easier for dementia patients to remember. The leader of the study Brandon Ally believes that this information could lead to new ways of working with dementia patients to help them remember things that would be positive for their wellbeing and sense of independence.

For dementia patients, a way to connect to the past is to play music that will be meaningful to them. Maybe a childhood song they loved, something they sang with their children, or music that recalls a relationship, such as a song from the first dance at their wedding. This can help them recall details from that time, as well as happy memories.

Music can reduce distress

Distress and agitation can be prevalent among dementia patients. Music can help alleviate this as it can have a calming influence. A study from Norway and Denmark found that a six-week program of individualized music therapy reduced distress and agitation among participants. 

How can music be enjoyed by dementia patients?

Music can be enjoyed through organized activities or just in more informal settings.

  • Favorite pieces of music can be played at home.
  • If the person was a musician, they can be given access to the instrument they played to see if they still have an interest in it.
  • Attend music therapy groups for dementia patients.
  • Listen to live performances, either in-person or on the TV.
  • Singing in a choir or a more informal group.

How to start the process?

If you are introducing music, it’s always best to start slowly. Music should be played quietly until you are sure the dementia patient is enjoying it, as you don’t want to startle them or make them frightened.

Play music you know the person likes or if you don’t have direct knowledge of that, then start with music from the era in which they were children or young adults. Or choose classical music that has either a calming or uplifting beat.

Watch the person’s reaction and act accordingly. Are they listening, tapping along in time to the music, or swaying in their seat? These are good signs, but if the person grows agitated then it’s time to reduce the volume still further and maybe try something else on another day. It may be that the person expresses sadness, this isn’t always something negative, it might just be that it reminds them of a time they had forgotten.

Where possible interact with the person as they are listening. Maybe you could hold hands or have a gentle dance if they are open to that. For some people looking at old photos while listening to music that is meaningful to them can help to evoke further memories.

The key is to take things slowly. You might need to try different music at different times to see what effect it has.

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