When words fail, music speaks. This is especially true for loved ones suffering with Dementia or Alzheimer’s. Music has been shown to connect with individuals in a way that words cannot. Several studies show that music is able to evoke response or a memory in people with memory loss. Your mother may not be able to tell you what she had for breakfast, but she might sing every word of her favorite song every time she hears it.

Benefits of Music Therapy for Dementia Patients

Music is a universal language, but it goes far beyond simply listening. Music has a close relationship with unconscious emotions. When the conscious mind is compromised, music can reach the subconscious.

Music can be used in so many ways and for so many purposes in Dementia therapy. The music itself can actually transport these patients to a happier place and ease the anxiety and agitation they live with on a daily basis. Benefits of music therapy for Dementia patients may include:

  • Calm someone who’s restless or uncomfortable
  • Increased social interaction and engagement with other residents and staff members. This allows more meaningful relationships and less time working through behavioral issues.
  • A more relaxed and calm mood throughout the day and better sleep patterns at night.
  • Music can touch areas of the brain that are still intact and bring those pathways to the forefront. This may actually improve recall of memories as a result of music therapy.
  • Familiar and likable music may be more beneficial in managing stress than medication.
  • Music therapy for dementia can bring a sense of control over life by accessing the parts of the brain that are familiar and comfortable with the tunes.
  • Singing and dancing can aid in physical rehabilitation, even neurological damage can be recovered by listening to and playing music.
  • Music during the evening can reduce anxiety during periods of “sundowning” or late-day confusion when confusion and agitation gets worse late in the afternoon or evening.

Best Music To Play For Dementia Patients

There is a strong connection between the brain’s auditory cortex and emotions. This biological link makes it possible for sound to be processed almost immediately by the areas of the brain associated with long-term memory and the emotion.

For this reason, the best music to play are songs that were once enjoyed during their earlier life. Obviously, this would be different for everyone, but here is a brief list of some of the more popular tunes for those who grew up in the United States in the early 1930-1940s.

  • “You Are My Sunshine”
  • “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain
  • “You Are My Sunshine”
  • “This Land is Your Land”
  • “Amazing Grace”
  • “Over the Rainbow” – Judy Garland
  • “Pennies from Heaven” – Bing Crosby
  • “Moonlight Serenade” – Glen Miller
  • “A-Tisket A-Tasket” – Ella Fitzgerald
  • “Moon Glow” – Benny Goodman
  • “Nature Boy” – Nat King Cole
  • “Memories are Made of This” – Dean Martin
  • “Wheel of Fortune” – Kay Starr
  • “Five Minutes More” – Frank Sinatra
  • “Look for the Silver Lining” – Chet Baker
  • The Goldberg Variations – J.S. Bach

Music Therapy Study: Meet Henry

The organization Music and Memory filmed a documentary about music therapy for dementia patients and how music specific to their youth can literally rewire their brains. In this documentary, we met a man named Henry. He sat with his head lowered and barely grunted in response to questions. When they provide earphones and play the music he loved as a younger man, he sat up, eyes opened and he started singing. After just a few minutes, they removed the earphones and began a conversation with him. Amazing!  The music had allowed them to reach a part of him that had been shut off. You can watch the full documentary below or watch it here. You’ll be amazed!

Because of the clear positive results of music therapy for dementia, various charitable foundations now provide iPods to the elderly. More senior homes are providing musical therapists to relieve the mental and emotional anguish that comes with dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Music Can Give Life To Those With Dementia or Alzheimer’s

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s now affects more than 5 million Americans. According to The National Institute on Aging, music can be both a pleasant link to the past, and a nourishing connection to the present. Suzanne Hanser, PhD, department chair of music therapy at Berklee College of Music in Boston and former program director of San Francisco’s Alzheimer’s Association has seen the effects of music therapy every day.

“There are certain areas of the brain that are still relatively intact even as a progressive disease like Alzheimer’s takes effect. In particular, the limbic system. And specifically, the hippocampus, which retains long-term memory and has retained emotional impact. Music triggers these long-term memories. So, we see people who have not spoken in years begin to sing songs that they knew in their early teens and early adulthood.”

Music is an expression of humanity and is, in and of itself, healing. It’s something we all understand and something we are all touched by. It is both food for the brain and healing for the heart.