We can all attest to the fact that music can raise one’s spirits and evoke strong memories. Hearing an old song on the radio can be compared to traveling back in time – suddenly, we may remember where we were when we first listened to the song, who we were with, or what we were doing. Specific songs and music pieces can connect us back to significant moments in our life history and elicit all types of emotion. Scientists have found a strong link between the brain’s auditory cortex and its limbic system, where emotions are processed. Therefore, the brain areas associated with long-term memory and feelings can process sound, like music, very quickly. For this reason, the use of music therapy has become popular in the treatment of those living with dementia or Alzheimer’s.
Because there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, doctors and therapists are continually focusing on improving the quality of life for those living with the disease. For those taking a more non-pharmacological approach, music therapy has been shown to enhance relaxation, relieve stress, support memory recall, and even restore lost speech. Music therapy can be beneficial at each stage of the disease:
Early-stage Alzheimer’s and Music Therapy
Those in the early stages of Alzheimer’s may enjoy singing, dancing, playing instruments, going to concerts, and listening to songs from their younger and middle-aged years. At this stage, before the disease has progressed, music therapy can help decrease feelings of anxiety and depression that may accompany a recent diagnosis.
Middle-stage Alzheimer’s and Music Therapy
Those in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s should continue listening to music, singing, and playing instruments if they can. For those who may not have any musical background, participating in a drum circle, for example, is just as beneficial as playing the piano. In this stage, a caregiver may experiment with singing songs while assisting with activities of daily living to decrease challenging behaviors. During this stage, those receiving music therapy services have been shown to sleep better, interact with others more successfully, and experience more moments of calm during the day.
Late-stage Alzheimer’s and Music Therapy
Those in the late stages of Alzheimer’s typically require a high level of care, and communication can become extremely difficult and even nonexistent. However, listening to music often encourages them to perk up, take more notice of their surroundings, and even inspire them to sing, dance, or clap their hands. This is because the music’s rhythm causes the brain to respond to the music directly and bypass the typical response process.
If you are a caregiver for someone living with Alzheimer’s, we suggest incorporating music therapy into your daily care routine. Consider playing music that was popular when your loved one was younger or music that you know has special meaning to them. You may also want to invest in some small hand-held instruments that your loved one can play. Conversely, many senior living communities have built music therapy and many other therapeutic methods into their daily and weekly programming.