The coronavirus pandemic has altered the way that we all live our lives. During this very challenging year, we have collectively done our best to adjust to the changes in our daily routines. While there have been countless news stories about how social distancing and business closures have impacted our physical and mental health, we are not reading much about the very profound impact Covid has had on those living with dementia.
There are over 100 different types of dementia, and the vast majority of them involve some sort of cognitive decline over time. The rate of that decline varies from person to person depending on the type and/or cause of the dementia, other underlying health conditions, their environment and current living situation, and other factors, such as access and ability to eat nutritious foods and the person’s ability to socialize.
In all cases, keeping the body and brain active will generally help to slow the progression of cognitive decline. While keeping seniors active during the Covid pandemic has been challenging, one proven and effective way to keep the body and brain working is through music.
Power of Music in Slowing Cognitive Decline
At Compass on the Bay, a Memory Support Assisted Living Community in South Boston, the programming staff has been very creative in keeping residents with memory loss and cognitive impairment social and engaged in therapeutic programming throughout the pandemic while abiding by state and CDC guidelines, including stay-at-home orders.
They reported that their most important tool to accomplish this was music. After introducing music programming early on in the pandemic, they noticed several residents’ cognitive decline slow.
The benefits of music for the dementia population has been well documented. Simply listening to music can enhance one’s mood, create a therapeutic environment and calm anxiety. Relaxing with your favorite tunes can stimulate new neural connections (which can fend off memory loss) and improve one’s attention span. Playing familiar or relaxing music for someone with dementia can calm agitation or aggression, reduce depression, and can even ‘open’ someone’s memories.
Case Study: Introducing Music During Mealtimes
As someone with more advanced dementia continues to decline, they may experience difficulties remembering how to eat. Throughout our Compass Memory Support Neighborhoods, our programming staff implement creative ways to ensure these residents are staying hydrated and getting the nutrients they need.
During the initial Covid pandemic surge in the Spring 2020, the staff at Compass on the Bay noticed that residents were eating and drinking less. They decided to apply their experience with music programming to mealtimes to see if they could elicit an improvement in the residents’ eating habits.
They began by playing music for these residents during meals. They used their in-house wireless listening system, featuring individual headphones to provide a clear music listening experience, to overcome some hearing impairments, minimize distractions, and reduce background noises that could take the focus away from the meal. The staff also used the system to speak directly to residents when they needed cueing and additional prompts to continue with their meal.
They saw results immediately.
For one resident who was pushing staff away when they would try to help her eat and spitting out food after she took a bite, music instantly improved her mealtime experience. The very first day the staff played her favorite tunes during dinner she began eating on her own after some prompts. The following day the staff applied the same set up. She picked up her utensils with no cueing and ate her entire meal on her own. With music, she was able to focus on the task of eating.
Music, Mood & Stress
During this pandemic, the changes that individuals with dementia have experienced in their living situations – from rearranging the physical layout of common spaces to promote physical distancing to new protocols and practices like seeing staff wearing masks(!) – have been confusing and stress-inducing. When the staff at Compass on the Bay notices someone appearing confused or stressed, a change in mood or behavior, they often use music as the perfect redirection tool. It also helps brighten everyone’s day.
Living through a pandemic is hard on everyone, not just those with dementia. It’s been especially hard on those of us working in senior living settings, including Assisted Living and dementia care, as we are on the front lines of this pandemic caring for the most vulnerable senior population. Music has healing powers for us too!
“Music can heal the wounds that medicine cannot touch.”
I frequently take purposeful breaks from the news, social media, thoughts about my work and other things that I know can cause stress, and put on some music! When you start to feel down, noticing the weight of the changes and sacrifices you are seeing all around you, turn up the music and dance! It can boost your mood almost immediately.