Dementia causes progressive cognitive decline that affects a person’s ability to reason, make decisions, perform everyday tasks, and sometimes their mood and personality. Those with this condition often experience Increased anxiety and stress which can be improved through music therapy. Additionally, this treatment approach encourages brain development in areas damaged by dementia.
What Is Dementia?
Dementia is not a specific disease or disorder, rather an umbrella term for memory loss and other cognitive deficits that are severe enough to impact daily functioning. Overtime, the condition results in impaired memory, thinking, and decision-making skills. Dementia is caused by abnormal brain changes which can also greatly affect one’s relationships, behaviors, and feelings.
What Is Music Therapy?
Music therapy is the clinical and evidence-based practice of incorporating music into the treatment of multiple physical and mental health concerns. Sessions may include having clients listen to music, write songs, play an instrument, or sing. While the first official music therapy inventions were introduced in the 1800s, the use of sound for healing has been practiced as far back as the ninth and tenth centuries.1, 2 However, it began to gain popularity in the 1940s when it was used to treat veterans who had experienced war trauma.
Music therapy is an expressive art therapy as it requires a combination of communication and expression. It can be used as a tool to heal mental, physical, and spiritual ailments across the lifespan.1
Music therapy is often categorized into four experiences:
- Improvisation: Spontaneous creation of music where the therapist will interpret and respond to the client. This can be used with people who are non-verbal or have difficulties communicating.
- Re-creation: Using music that is already written, like singing along to a favorite song. This helps strengthen motor skills and promote socialization.
- Composition: The therapist assists the client with writing their own music and can help assist with validating experiences, increasing creative drive, or legacy work.
- Receptive: The client listens to music and responds silently, verbally, or in another way. This is used for promoting relaxation, enhancing memory, or decreasing stress and anxiety.
Benefits of Music Therapy for Dementia
Because pharmacological interventions for dementia are not always effective, more medical providers are looking for alternative treatment avenues. Research suggests that music therapy can reduce stress and promote relaxation in patients. Music is also important for memory recall, which makes it a great modality for those with this condition.
A recent study found those with mild, moderate, and severe dementia experienced improved quality of life and cognitive function after engaging in music therapy.3 Additional research shows that music therapy can enhance patients’ memory and language ability, as well as reduce psychiatric symptoms.4
Below are five benefits of music therapy for those with dementia:
1. Improved Social Communication & Interaction
As dementia progresses, social engagement and interaction can decrease. Music therapy can be used to invite engagement because it relaxes the person with dementia, making it easier for them to communicate. It can further facilitate this if performed in a social or group setting, as participants are encouraged to listen to music or sing together.
2. Decreased Anxiety
Music therapy can help alleviate symptoms of anxiety. Unfortunately, anxiety is common in those who suffer from dementia. There are many reasons for this, such as worrying about the outlook of one’s future, how their illness will impact their lives, and transitioning to full-time care.
As their dementia progresses, someone may become more forgetful and disoriented, only adding to their increasing anxieties.5Through the use of calming music, music therapists aim to promote relaxation, mindfulness, and focus on the present moment. Playing or singing along to a favorite song can provide a sense of familiarity and peacefulness.
3. Improved Memory
Often, music is emotionally linked to one’s memories. There have been documented reports of individuals with dementia being able to recall information and emotions associated with certain songs.5. Listening to familiar music can help increase a client’s sense of identity and increase their quality of life. Furthermore, creating music can encourage participants to utilize skills learned earlier in life or develop new skills, helping to improve cognitive function.
4. Decrease Caregiver Stress
While music therapy is designed to benefit clients, it can also help improve the well-being of caregivers and loved ones. Caregiving in general is a very stressful and overwhelming job. Add in additional agitation, anxiety, and other symptoms that coincide with dementia can make it even more challenging. By decreasing clients’ distress, music therapy helps reduce the risk of caregiver burnout as well as improve the caregiver-patient relationship.5
5. Non-Pharmacological Pain Management
Dementia often occurs comorbidly with other chronic health conditions that may cause pain. Music therapy can help distract a patient from their pain and redirect their focus onto something positive and encouraging. Music can also be used to soothe and decrease physical discomfort from medical procedures, such as IV insertion.6
What Does a Typical Music Therapy Session Look Like?
Typically, an initial session will include an assessment of one’s needs, goals, and expectations for treatment. Depending on the person’s cognitive functioning, this information may come from a loved one or caregiver. If the client lives in a facility full-time or is on hospice, there may already be a music therapist on staff that offers services.
At a facility, music therapy is often done in a group setting to foster socialization. This may include listening to music, singing, or playing instruments together. A one-on-one session would be more focused on the client’s specific needs, such as calming agitation or decreasing anxiety. Outside of in-patient care, rates for music therapy vary by location and may be covered by insurance and Medicaid.
Vocal intonation therapy (VIT) is another form of music therapy that can be used for people with dementia. VIT includes vocal exercises geared towards amplifying vocal production, such as breath control, pitch, and sound strength.7 Neurological disorders can impact speech. Therefore, individuals with dementia can benefit from these practices.
How to Find a Music Therapist
There are many ways you can find a therapist–try reaching out to your primary care doctor, searching an online directory, or asking specific organizations (such as the Alzheimer’s Association) for recommendations. When you choose a therapist, you will want to look for someone who is a Music Therapist-Board Certified (MT-BC). You can also search on the American Music Therapy Association or the Certification Board for Music Therapists directory to locate a provider.
Music therapists are often employed in settings such as:
- Private practices
- Adult day care camps
- Skilled nursing facilities
- Assisted living facilities
- Hospice agencies
- Non-profit agencies
- Community mental health centers
Music Therapy Practices to Try at Home
After meeting with a music therapist and getting recommendations, you can further promote relaxation, reduce agitation, and increase socialization at home with fun activities. This can also help with ongoing pain management for the person with dementia.
Below are some music therapy exercises to try at home:
- Play music from earlier decades: Playing oldies and songs from a person’s youth can help reignite areas of their brain that may be untouched by dementia. Reliving these years may resurface fond memories, helping to reduce agitation.
- Make personalized playlists: Designing playlists for certain emotions and feelings can help a person with dementia communicate in non-verbal ways. Additionally, it can help them relax in times of distress.
- Vocal intonation therapy (VIT): If approved by your therapist, you can continue using VIT at home to strengthen speech or breath control.
- Assign songs to certain needs: A person with dementia may have trouble communicating, but music is universal. Try assigning songs to particular needs in order to make communicating them easier.
Music therapy for dementia is a very powerful, non-pharmacological, and non-invasive treatment approach. It can help patients maintain their cognitive skills, enhance their quality of life, improve social skills, and manage physical pain. Music is a universal language that everyone can understand and appreciate. Used as a tool in treatment, it can be especially beneficial–not only for the patient, but also their loved ones.