Music and Dementia: What’s the connection?

In my practice, as I see patients with dementia in their homes and in assisted living communities, throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, I am often struck by the difference in patients surrounded by silence, and those surrounded by music.

I would attest to the power of music. The most joyous time I saw in dementia care was when the drumming man came with his drums and was singing and drumming. The group was so energized! An elder with Parkinson's who rarely moves was banging on the drum with joy. I can see how the iPod would be helpful, but also the communal sharing of music is an experience that transcends.

Music must be appropriate, however. I once entered a dining room in a dementia community, with 25 elders and their aides having a meal, with the TV on very loudly, playing RAP music. I was annoyed upon entering the room, not to mention the obvious agitation of elders in the room. I immediately insisted that the channel be changed to ‘big Band’ music and the tension in the room eased immediately. The music should be chosen for the elders, not for the entertainment of the young aides or family members.

A new documentary movie is coming out in August, “Alive Inside” about the miracle of music therapy for Alzheimer’s patients. Here is the link to the website with a trailer and more information. "Alive Inside" received the “Audience Choice” award at Sundance 2014. It shows the power of music in bringing patients with dementia back into 'life'. http://musicandmemory.org/

In dementia, we often are trying to decrease antipsychotics, and truly music and engaging activities are crucial in helping with this. Music can bring us to a happier place, to a calm and contented place, or to times when we were independent and having fun. It can change a mood in a much easier way than drugs. Find out what music your loved one enjoys- it may be classical, it may be blues, it may be Elvis. Whatever their taste, play it often and enjoy with them.

It is certainly worth a try.