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Music taps into memories

Senior woman listening to music

Music often accompanies defining moments in our lives. From singing the national anthem at school, to the song you walked down the aisle to, music almost always has a role to play. Music can hold cultural significance, it can elicit strong emotions and trigger long term memories. I’m sure most people have experienced hearing a particular song and the feeling of being transported back to a forgotten time or place.

Renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks identified the important role music can play on our emotional and physical health, including lowering our heart rate and blood pressure and calming our nervous system. Singing in particular can lift mood and boost a person’s self-confidence. We all use music throughout our lives for relaxation, stimulation, exercise or just for pleasure.

Listening to meaningful music engages broad neural networks, and research has shown it to be a very useful tool for positively engaging with people living with dementia. One of the key areas of the brain effected when listening to music that triggers music evoked autobiographical memories (MEAMs) is the area just behind the forehead. This is also one of the last areas affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

Listening to music with emotional significance brings back strong memories for most people. This can be used to enhance wellbeing and quality of life in all of us, but can be especially useful for people living with dementia.

There is strong research evidence promoting the use of music as a valid tool for supporting people living with dementia – whether they are still living at home or have moved to an aged care facility. With up to 50% of all aged care residents diagnosed with dementia, and current care practices under the spotlight, it is a worthwhile concept to explore.

The style of music doesn’t matter. It could be jazz, classical, rap or heavy metal. It simply has to mean something to the person. Music from when a person was a young adult, aged 15 to 25, seems to have the strongest MEAMs and evoke the greatest, most positive responses, though any music with a strong emotional memory attachment can be beneficial.

Music therapy is so effective it has even been shown to reduce pain and discomfort in some people with dementia – leading to a reduced need for some medications.

Many people living with dementia may not have the opportunity to access music that matters to them. Often we may not think about creating opportunities for the person to be able to listen to their music on a daily basis. A number of programs around the world are seeking to change this including the Music and Memory Group in the USA and the Music for Dementia 2020 group in the UK.

In a movement called ‘social prescribing’, supporters of the UK campaign hope to embed music into dementia care pathways and reduce the use of inappropriate chemical restraint in dementia care, instead highlighting the importance of improving wellbeing and quality of life. Useful tools and resources for creating playlists can be found on the Music for Dementia 2020 and the Playlist for Life websites.

If you are still not convinced of the benefits of music in supporting people with dementia, try searching YouTube for a clip aptly named ‘Alive Inside – Henry’s Story’, and watch the transformation of Henry for yourself. For anyone who knows a person living with dementia, it is powerful viewing.

If you know someone with dementia, consider bringing some music back into their life. It may only feel like a small gesture, however for a person living with dementia it could help bring back some wonderful memories.

How to re-introduce music to a person with dementia

  • Start by finding music that the person enjoys and connects with, and that brings a positive response.
  • Create playlists of songs that illicit different emotions. Music can make us feel many different things and all are valid and important emotions to express.
  • Listen to music together. It could be on the radio, the television, using an old fashioned tape player, or even live music. Create a sing-a-long playlist. Why not have a dance at the same time!
  • Use an iPod or similar device that the person can access easily. Using headphones can help the person living with dementia to concentrate on the music without distraction.
  • Look out for music groups, choirs or music based activities in your area.
  • Visit the Music for Dementia 2020 website to get tips and resources.

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