The Benefits of Music Therapy for Dementia (This article appeared in the Daily Camera’s “Aging at Altitude” special insert Oct 2022.)

Seniors in nursing home making music with rhythm instruments as musical therapy

Years ago, I attended a drumming circle with my husband at the memory care home where he lived. Music therapist John Crowder had the group mimic his rhythmic conga drum-playing as the residents shook gourds.

“You know, we all have a drum right here,” Crowder said, pointing to his heart. Although some of the members of the group were non-verbal, at least half of them seemed to understand exactly what he meant. Throughout the forty-five minute session, several people broke into song, which he used to simultaneously lead the group in singing and music playing.

Music therapy is becoming more widely understood as a valid healthcare profession and method for working with memory care patients and neurologically impaired individuals. Hundreds of studies and documented cases illustrate how music has a positive effect on people with dementia and Alzheimer’s. It’s not unusual for the communication veils to lift after a person with dementia is exposed to a guided music therapy session. Family members find this limited, albeit temporary, period to be extremely meaningful and precious.

Board-certified music therapist Mikayla Findley uses music as a tool to engage the residents at Alta Vita Living in Longmont in drum circles, creative music-making, songwriting, and singing.  “Overtime, in brain diseases there is a degradation of brain matter. Much more than an emotional device, when we listen to music it can become a special neurological tool that enlivens multiple areas of the brain. The physical, emotional, intellectual, physical, and communication centers of the brain become engaged,” she said.

“Depending on the person who is participating in the music, the sense of touch can also be stimulated,” Findley said. “Vibrations can be felt and music can provide not just aural, but a tactile stimulation.”

Since the auditory system is the first system in the brain to fully function before birth, we are exposed to music right from the start. Since people with dementia are often able to retrieve memories from long ago, music is often the catalyst for the emotions that arise, and can sometimes stimulate conversation.

Findley said, “I had a one-to-one experience with a person at a nursing home who was non-verbal and apathetic. She’d babble and vocalize sounds but didn’t speak. I’d use music to communicate with her because we couldn’t communicate verbally. I discovered that she loved drums and in the majority of our sessions, we had a musical call and response on the drums.

“Sometimes I would play the guitar. Eventually, I’d put it down and sing and she would sing the words to “You Are My Sunshine” and “Que Sera Sera.” The woman was extremely vocal and awake with an upright posture during our sessions. She’d say ‘good-bye’ and was more alert for hours afterwards.”

Leonard Bernstein once said, “Music can name the un-nameable and communicate the unknowable.” Music can evoke memories, increase social interaction in people with dementia, and help them form trust with their caregivers. It can act as a stress diffuser, up-lifter, and natural medicine.

Music stirs memories and allows people within a group to enjoy something together. It’s a wonderful way to help people interact, communicate, have fun together, and reduce feelings of loneliness and depression. Soothing music can reduce sundowning in people with Alzheimer’s who experience anxiety, restlessness, and confusion in the evening.

Findley added, “As we outline all these areas of function, we see that music can engage the whole person, which is what makes it such an effective tool.”

Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: TheCaregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”—Winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Self-Help—in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.