Exciting Strides in Music Therapy for Dementia

Exciting Strides in Music Therapy for Dementia

Music is all around us. We hear it in movies, at social gatherings, weddings and funerals, in stores and offices, and in our places of worship.  Whenever we encounter it our bodies react physiologically and our minds form associations. Because we’re all in contact with music and all experiencing its powerful effects, therapists have long suspected it could be used therapeutically. Music therapists began integrating music as a healing modality in the 1970’s but demonstrating its value took time. Today mounting research and case studies, and the advent of MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and FMRI (Functional Magnetic Imaging), substantiate music as an effective therapy for stress and a variety of mental and physical health conditions including Alzheimer’s and Dementia.

Most caregivers wouldn’t be surprised to find out that music inspires people with dementia. Caregivers know anecdotally that singing together is a tool for connecting and motivating. This year, however, the National Institutes of Health acknowledged studies showing that music is effectively easing agitation and depression related to dementia and improving overall quality of life.  The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, as well, states that music not only touches and heals but reaches well into progressed states of dementia because experiencing music doesn’t require cognitive or mental processing.


Our associations with music determine how strongly and in what way we respond emotionally.

Typically music from our early years is most relatable and familiar so is often used therapeutically in settings involving dementia. For the Silent Generation think Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra or tunes from the dance era:

However unfamiliar music may be a safer therapeutic tool for reducing stress because it’s least apt to prompt a potentially troublesome or unpleasant memory that may be difficult to manage. Perhaps something classical? Wherever it’s integrated into dementia care exciting stories emerge. Throughout the United States dementia patients who’ve long been difficult to reach seem to respond in often enthusiastic ways when exposed to familiar music.


Dan Cohen, founder of Music and Memory a non-profit organization established in 2010 to bring personalized music into nursing homes and eldercare settings, may be America’s strongest advocate for applying the healing power of music to dementia settings.  His organization trains and equips staff to create personal ipod playlists for people in their care. Cohen gained motivation to expand his program when initial ipod playlist recipients in later stage dementia and end stage disease had sometimes moving experiences. “It’s a win-win-win situation,” Mary Murray, a hospice RN raves on the Music and Memory website, “something happy and uplifting in the hospice world.” Cohen’s work and the inspiring interactions it creates will be profiled in a movie this July called, “Alive Inside.”  In the clip from Alive Inside, Henry, a man who had been largely non-responsive after 10 years in a nursing home, listens to a playlist created for him on ipod. He becomes engaged. The narrator asks him what music means to him and he uncharacteristically finds himself capable of expressing himself conceptually, “[music] gives me the feeling of love, romance, I feel the band of love and dreams,” he says.


Dan Cohen’s work and the exciting responses to ipod playlists is inspiring discussion about Music for Alzheimer’s throughout the caregiving world. It was a feature topic at the Alzheimer’s Disease Education Conference in March. ABC news gave coverage to the program and linked to a prepaid postage label for donating old ipods to Cohen’s project. And, in Wisconsin, Kevin Coughlin, Wisconsin Department of Health Services Executive, was so motivated by Cohen’s results that he led his state to be the first to use Medicare funding to provide personalized music for nursing home residents. If you’re excited about this marriage of technology and dementia care consider liking music and memory on Facebook, donating your ipod, or talking to local nursing homes and assisted living facilities about providing personalized playlists for residents. Music heals!


With a Little Help

With A Little Help is a local in-home care company serving the Northwest for 21 years. We provide high-quality 1-on-1 home care to those who need it most. We don't just make a meal for our clients; we sit down and share a meal with them. Companionship is the reason for everything we do, and our mission is that all client/caregiver relationships are authentic and meaningful.