Music Offers Powerful Gifts for Individuals Living with Dementia

Numerous studies conducted over the last decade prove what most of us know instinctively – music can have an incredibly positive impact on the quality of life for individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease. Music that is familiar to individuals with dementia can have a profound effect on their emotions: it can improve memory recall; it has been documented to reduce anxiety and depression; and it even helps improve scores on cognitive function tests. 

One organization focused on research and music therapy, the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, reports that the therapeutic effects of music improve the mood and alertness of Alzheimer’s patients and can be used as a powerful tool in helping improve their quality of life. The Institute’s Oliver Sacks, MD (neurologist) and music therapist Concetta M. Tomaino demonstrated that people with neurological problems could learn to move better, remember more, and even regain speech when music was used in specific ways. In this video, Dr. Oliver Sacks, showcases the powerful effect of music on individuals with Alzheimer’s disease living in a nursing home. He described one man who was lethargic and withdrawn who immediately lit up with expression, his eyes open wide, listening to his favorite music. Dr. Sacks said the man had “reacquired his identity” for a while through the power of music. Through his observations he concluded that “music brings individuals with dementia back into their own personhood, their own memories, and their own autobiographies.”

Additional research by Harvard Medical School, the National Institute of Health, McGill University and other medical institutions show that singing has more health and healing advantages over just listening to music. 

At my company, Massachusetts-based Senior Living Residences, music and singing is incorporated into the daily programming at our Compass Memory Support Neighborhoods with positive results. During the coronavirus pandemic music was used successfully during mealtime to improve nutritional outcomes for residents dealing with social distancing mandates. Listening to music and singing improves the mood, quality of life, orientation and executive functioning of our residents. Music intervention can calm things down when an individual is anxious or agitated. It also enhances the autobiographical recall of individuals with memory loss allowing them to more fully participate in discussions and activities that are part of our adult learning curriculum, Reconnections

Families caring for a loved one at home can also successfully incorporate music into their daily routine. In fact, studies have shown that the benefits of music and singing extends to the family caregivers themselves, helping to boost their own psychological and physical well-being.  SingFit, a musical health technology company based in Los Angeles, has created an app that anyone – from senior living communities to individual families can use. This might be helpful, but you don’t have to purchase an app to access the benefits of music right away. You can simply make a playlist of your family member’s favorite songs and play them frequently. Even more simple – just sing! Sing familiar, cherished songs to your loved one, and the memories will flood back for both of you.

Having dementia is hard, and being a caregiver for someone with dementia is also hard. Music can help to bring joy into both of your lives.