Music is often the background of many of our memories. We grow up hearing it on the radio, on TV and in concerts. We sang in school and at special events. We often associate certain songs with our relationships, happy memories, sad memories, growing up and different seasons of life. Because of its constant presence in our lives, music is deeply woven into our memories, and can offer hope and helpful tools to those whose memories are fading.
When a person has dementia, different parts of the brain deteriorate along with his or her ability to engage in daily life. Memories become more difficult to access, but according to a 2009 study by Petr Janata at UC Davis, memories attached to music are housed in the areas of the brain that deteriorate at a later stage in dementia. This offers hope to be able to connect with those living with dementia for a longer time. At some point, we may not be able to ask the person, “Do you remember when?” But by playing a favorite song, we might be able to elicit a response.
Those in later stages of Alzheimer’s may sing along with parts of their favorite song. Others may open their eyes and look around after the music is turned on. One man was brought to tears after singing God Bless America, saying, “It reminds me of my Navy days.” In another case, a woman spends most of the day waving her hands to the beat of the music and is often in a better mood.
Often, those with dementia can exhibit challenging behaviors. This is usually a response to something being “off” in their world. Listening to a familiar song that will evoke happy memories or emotions can reduce the fear that comes with confusion about where they are and what is happening. A 2017 study showed that facilities utilizing the Music and Memory program, which provides personalized music on iPod shuffles to nursing home residents, showed a decrease in antipsychotic and anti-anxiety medication use when compared with facilities that did not utilize Music and Memory.
So how do caregivers use music to enhance their loved one’s life? The first step is to determine what songs will be familiar and memorable. For the music to be effective, it must be something that person would enjoy listening to. Unknown tunes offer less benefit because they do not have memories and emotions tied to them. Singing, playing music during bathing, dancing along to a beloved song and tapping along to the beat are all great ways to engage someone with dementia.
Music can benefit both the caregiver and the individual with dementia by helping him or her to “remember” for longer, elevate mood, and provide familiarity and comfort in a world that is becoming more unfamiliar. Best of all, the caregiver can easily access all kinds of music.