“Memories are made of this” – Music therapy helps family members with dementia

“I think music in itself is healing. It’s an explosive expression of humanity. It’s something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we’re from, everyone loves music.”

Billy Joel

musicGrandma walked into the living room and asked what day it was. She sat down, looked up, and asked what day it was. She nodded her head in acknowledgement, adjusted her sweater and asked what day it was.

Dementia. Sometimes you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Linda Uhrig Hitchcock, MD, Geriatric Medicine, discusses the benefits of music therapy for people with dementia.

Music therapy can improve the lives of people with dementia, says Dr. Hitchcock. “It’s one of the most engaging, emotionally powerful stimuli available to help people with dementia,” she says.

“Music therapy brings back the story of the person’s life. It’s a key to unlocking a part of the diseased brain. It appears to be so for some short periods of time, depending on the patient and the areas of memory loss affected,” says Dr. Hitchcock.

The Power of Music Therapy

When you’re struggling coping with your loved one with dementia and you say to yourself, “What am I going to do with them?” Dr. Hitchcock suggests: “Just put the music on.

The music of their past “brings them back to the memories of what they had, what they did and who they were.”

“Most everybody loves music or had music somehow associated with good events in their lives. You listen to the car radio and something good happened that day. You associate those positive emotions with the song on the radio,” explains Dr. Hitchcock.

Music therapy, research shows, taps into music’s power to associate affirmative feelings, memory and recall. Listening to his or her favorite songs can bring up your loved one’s long forgotten memories of people, places and events.

Music Therapy at Home

Families can use music therapy at home with great success, says Dr. Hitchcock.

The key is for you to select your loved one’s favorite music — music that will bring back good memories from your loved one’s younger days.

“Select songs you know they loved, such as old folk songs, church songs, songs they can sing along to,” says Dr. Hitchcock.

Dr. Hitchcock further suggests showing your loved one the album covers. The visual image will help draw up memories from the good, happy times of their lives.

The music of their past “brings them back to the memories of what they had, what they did and who they were,” says Dr. Hitchcock.

When you play songs from their youth, it’s powerful how the music can “bring them back to themselves for a short time,” says Dr. Hitchcock, “pulling them out and giving them their identity back. For a short time they’re the person they were when they were vibrant in their lives.”

The Necessity of Movement

Another benefit of music therapy is improving or maintaining your loved one’s physical fitness.

“You want to get them dancing, singing, clapping,” she says.

“While they’re listening to their favorite music, have them do activities with drums or other actions they can do with their hands,” Dr. Hitchcock recommends, “because it improves their ability to continue to feed themselves.”

Movement improves your loved one’s:

  • Flexibility
  • Strength
  • Bone density
  • Breathing

Encouraging movement is essential for people with dementia, especially those who are more advanced, Dr. Hitchcock says.

Feeling the rhythm of the music may be helpful for those with advanced dementia. “Even if they can’t jump up, anything they can feel — such as the vibration of the music — can give them some relief,” says Dr. Hitchcock.

iPod Music Therapy

One of the most effective forms of music therapy is iPod music therapy. It’s easy. All you have to do is download your loved one’s favorite music onto an iPod or MP3 player, put headphones on him or her, and push Play.

iPod music therapy blocks out ancillary sounds — such as washing machines or TVs. This way, your family member with dementia can focus on the music from his or her youth without distractions.

With iPod music therapy, your loved one can more easily focus on the music and is in some cases more likely to “emerge from their isolation of dementia for a short period of time,” says Dr. Hitchcock.

Music Therapy May Lead to Communication

Music therapy in some cases helps those with advanced dementia communicate in simple terms.

“For those people who can’t let you know their needs, music therapy sometimes allows them to be able to do that. If they’ve been listening and been brought back, sometimes they’re able to answer in a simple word or they’re able to nod,” says Dr. Hitchcock.

“Families like to see that they get that person back for a bit,” says Dr. Hitchcock.

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“Memories are made of this” – Music therapy helps family members with dementia