iPod music therapy helps people with dementia recover identity (temporarily)

When words leave off, music begins.
~ Heinrich Heine

Most of us have family members or friends who’ve experienced dementia — a progressive, degenerative brain disorder affecting memory and other cognitive functions such that it disrupts the ability to function in daily life.

It’s a cruel disorder. You watch your grandmother or your neighbor or your boss go from a vibrant, independent individual to a mere shell of his or her old self. It can be heartbreaking.

Linda Uhrig Hitchcock, MD, Director, Geriatric Medicine, discusses the benefits of iPod music therapy, a hopeful new approach to helping people with dementia recover identity — temporarily.

Music therapy for treating dementia, Dr. Hitchcock says, has been around a long time, but it’s been only within the last few years that huge leaps have been made in caring for people with dementia with the application of iPod and other MP3-type devices.

What Is iPod Music Therapy?

iPod music therapy is simple: Through headphones, the person with dementia listens to music downloaded onto an iPod or MP3 player.

The iPod and headphones make all the difference, compared with music played by the nursing home from overhead speakers or from a tape player sitting in the patient’s room, says Dr. Hitchcock.

“With the headphones, all the person hears is the music. The outside distractions, such as loudspeaker announcements or people talking nearby, are blocked out,” says Dr. Hitchcock.

The clarity of sound provided by the iPod coupled with the headphones allows the person with dementia to focus on the music and the memories associated with it.

What Type of Music Is Best for Music Therapy?

Favorite songs from their early years are the best music to download for iPod music therapy for people with dementia.

Music that works well for people with dementia patients:

  • Music they can sing along to
  • Church songs they learned long ago
  • Favorite folk songs
  • Top hits from their teen or young adult years

Veterans in particular remember war music and the Big Band sound, evoking a lot of emotion for them, says Dr. Hitchcock.

“I remember the music my parents liked — the Big Band sounds. I can still sing the songs my mother used to play on the piano. Those songs evoke good memories for me. She would always play Up a Lazy River and In the Mood, and anything by Patsy Cline. My parents were happy. We were happy. It was good times,” reflects Dr. Hitchcock.

“The family is of great importance here. They can provide the physician with a sense of what kind of music was important to the person with dementia during his or her youth,” says Dr. Hitchcock.

How Does iPod Music Therapy Work?

“The left side of our brains has to do with language. As people progress with dementia, they have significant deficits with language,” explains Dr. Hitchcock.

However, music — because of its rhythm and pitch — affects different areas of the brain than language, Dr. Hitchcock says. It can provide a bridge to parts of the brain not yet ravaged by dementia.

Often, language in advanced stages of dementia is very limited, and then the people lose even that, Dr. Hitchcock explains. Because music affects a different part of the brain than language, iPod music therapy has the potential of allowing communication through that reinvigorated part of the brain.

“iPod music therapy can also pull people out and give them their identity back. It’s kind of like looking in the mirror. They see the person that they were when they were vibrant in their lives.”

“It’s almost unbelievable,” says Dr. Hitchcock, “to see people whose dementia was so advanced that they were unable to converse — after listening to old war tunes begin to say a few words or sing along.”

Moreover, music has a strong connection to both memory and emotion. Recent studies suggest that as people with dementia enjoy tunes of good times gone by, their brains release dopamine, the feel-good hormone, which helps both in retrieval of memories and in lifting mood.

“Listening to the music on an iPod — with the world blocked out — can transport the patients back in time. It can empower them to emerge from the isolation of their dementia for short periods of time. They may react by smiling, by movement,” says Dr. Hitchcock, “and they may react by singing.”

“Some patients who can’t talk can sing,” notes Dr. Hitchcock.

“Music allows people with dementia back to the memories of what they had, what they did, and who they were,” says Dr. Hitchcock.

What Are the Benefits of iPod Music Therapy?

There are many benefits of iPod music therapy. Perhaps the greatest is that it gives many people with dementia “a sense of control over their lives — for a short period of time,” says Dr. Hitchcock, “and it’s a positive change for their mood and their emotional state.”

iPod music therapy may:

  • Improve memory recall
  • Increase animation and eye contact
  • Allow for physical improvement for those who can participate
  • Offer a means to communicate
  • Help social interaction
  • Decrease agitation
  • Improve cooperation with care-center staff
  • Provide non-pharmacologic management for pain and discomfort

“iPod music therapy,” Dr. Hitchcock notes, “can also pull people out and give them their identity back. It’s kind of like looking in the mirror. They see the person that they were when they were vibrant in their lives.”

Editor’s Note: Scott & White family practice residents will begin iPod music therapy with dementia patients in select local assisted living centers in July 2012.

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iPod music therapy helps people with dementia recover identity (temporarily)