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Music Therapy: Benefit for Those with Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Forms of Dementia

According to the American Music Therapy Association, music therapy for dementia is the clinical and evidence-based practice of utilizing musical interventions to meet individualized memory support goals facilitated by a credentialed music therapist. While music therapy can be used in many different settings, its use within the Alzheimer’s and dementia community has a long history. Music therapy’s use in the treatment of older adults with memory loss can be traced back more than 2,000 years. During the 20th century, community musicians gathered in military hospitals to play for World War II veterans suffering from both physical and emotional trauma. Later on, the first music therapy program was established in 1944 at Michigan State University, which prompted the creation of music therapy institutions, such as The American Music Therapy Association. Today, music therapy for dementia is widely known for its tremendous effects on those suffering from memory loss and is used throughout the nation in retirement communities and memory care settings.

Research on the effects of music therapy suggests it can provide improvements in memory recall, boost mood, reduce stress and anxiety, help manage pain and discomfort, and encourage emotional intimacy with family members and caregivers. As Alzheimer’s and dementia progress, communication and connection can become more difficult. However, research has shown music therapy for dementia is linked to emotion and memory and can help families and caregivers find new ways to connect with their loved ones.

How Does Music Help with Dementia?
Utilizing music therapy for dementia can help maintain or increase a patient’s level of physical, mental, social, and emotional functions. Music from one’s past can evoke emotion, which can lead to memory recall. By pairing music with everyday activities, patients can develop a rhythm that helps them remember the activity and improve cognitive ability over time. As dementia progresses and communication becomes difficult, music is a great way to connect. Musical aptitude and appreciation are some of the last remaining abilities for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. Music can help reach beyond the disease and access emotions differently. Familiar music from the past can be a powerful way to boost mood, reduce agitation, and improve quality of life for periods of time. If your loved one is ambulatory, dancing can often lead to a physical connection such as embracing and holding hands.

Memory in Sound
Alzheimer’s disease and most other forms of dementia are degenerative diseases, which can make expressing basic needs more difficult. However, trained music therapists use musical interventions as a way of communicating nontraditionally. Singing can offer structure and enable dialogue by stimulating different areas of the brain. Music therapy can also be used to provide a renewed sense of identity for those living with Alzheimer’s disease. Singing songs from the past and reliving memories through sound can help those with Alzheimer’s communicate stories and memories to their loved ones and caregivers.

How to Practice Music Therapy at Home
While music therapy for dementia is best when facilitated by a trained and certified music therapist, you can apply the same helpful methods at home. According to the Mayo Clinic, music can be used in a variety of ways to help spark human connections, evoke memories, and decrease feelings of anxiety and agitation. If you’re interested in using music as a way to connect or soothe your loved one, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

Play your loved one’s favorite selections
Start with playing music your loved one will enjoy such as favorite selections from when they were a teenager or young adult. If they have an old record or tape collection, this is a great place to start. These favorites can evoke positive memories and remind them of happy times in their life.

Engage younger generations
Music is a great way for grandkids and adult children to connect with their loved one who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. You might encourage your family members to make a playlist of their loved one’s favorite songs or help them choose what to listen to together.

Set the mood
Playing relaxing and instrumental music can help calm your loved one, especially during meal times or before going to sleep. When it’s appropriate to help your loved one stay alert and engaged, play upbeat music.

Avoid overstimulation
Those with Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia can become overwhelmed easily. It’s important to limit distractions while you’re playing music. Turn off the TV, shut the door, and opt for music that isn’t interrupted by commercials when playing through a streaming service.

Encourage movement
Help your loved one clap hands or tap their feet to the beat. If you can, you might consider dancing with your loved ones to keep them engaged and foster a sense of security.

Pay attention to the response
If your loved one enjoys particular songs or types of music, play them often. And make sure to avoid music that seems to provoke agitation or overstimulation.

Let the music play
Music can be beneficial for caregivers as well. Whether creating your playlist to boost your mood after emotional days or finding joy in watching your loved one engage with music, it’s important to find ways to care for yourself, too.

Find a professional music therapist
The American Music Therapy Association represents 5,000 music therapists and other associations that offer information about music therapy studies and provides a list of credentialed music therapists that offer their services in institutional, residential, and private home settings.

Working with Music at Maplewood Senior Living
Maplewood Senior Living communities offer music therapy and other music-related activities that can be beneficial for residents at all levels of care. To learn more about how these programs can serve your loved one, please contact us or schedule a tour.


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