On Music Therapy for Alzheimer and Dementia

May 1, 2013

Playing piano

by Sophie Evans

One of the most common symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease is dementia, which is a decline in brain function. The earlier someone is diagnosed with this incurable disease, the longer they are likely to have to deal with the symptoms associated with it.

The greatest fear for most people upon hearing their doctor saying that have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is that they will lose their sense of self. They fear that dementia will rob them of their uniqueness and, once that gone, then there is no hope of recapturing it.

Take for instance veteran soul musician Bobby Womack. He is only 68 years old. Despite being a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, he has trouble remembering songs that he wrote, and even the last names of his band members.

Music Therapy and Dementia

This is ironic because music therapy is one of the best ways to help treat every stage of Alzheimer’s, from early onset until later when the individual spends most of their time immobile in a bed or a wheelchair.

Here are some specific ways it reduces symptoms: 

  1. Offers mental challenges to stimulate the brain and keep it active to fight off symptoms of dementia
  2. Affords individuals with ways express their emotions regarding symptoms related to Alzheimer’s
  3. Provides opportunity for repetition which improves memory function and therefore reduces the occurrences of memory loss
  4. Encourages singing along to lyrics which improves speech and vocal health, even for patients who are otherwise nonverbal
  5. Allows interaction which helps with social interaction and helps reduce depression

How Music Therapy Works

We use every part of our brain to process music. And not just in one way – we process music in multiple ways at once! Even if a part of the brain is damaged due to dementia, then music can still stimulate it in ways that prescription medication and other therapies cannot.

Concetta Tomaino is a certified music therapist and director of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function at Beth Abraham Family of Health Services. She explains that “Music has a personal significance to someone…is a strong stimulus to engage responses in people.”

In other words, if a particular song or piece of music has historic significance in regards to something from our past, then we are likely to be moved by it. Along with the memory of that event are the emotions associated with it. This can delay Alzheimer’s symptoms, and even improve quality of life.

Individual Therapy Programs

One of the largest benefits of music therapy is that the therapist can tailor and individualize programs to suit the unique needs of each patient who suffers from Alzheimer’s. These programs are based on the individual’s personal history and ability to engage with others.

Just because something works for one person does not mean it will work for all patients. That is because each person who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s could present symptoms that are as unique as their own genetic makeup!

The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (www.alzfdn.org) advises that any time a particular piece of music evokes distress that the session should discontinue. They observe that stress may be indicated by “agitation, facial grimaces or increasing muscular tension.”

Alzheimer’s and Instruments

Along with listening to music and singing to it, individuals can play an instrument to express their feelings, relieve stress, or just as a way to be able to interact socially. For those who have never played a musical instrument before, it is still possible to take basic lessons on learning.

Learning how to play an instrument, like the piano, offers a way for Alzheimer’s patients to reach small goals and work their way up to slightly larger ones. For patients who lack the ability to sit at the piano, an iPad or other tablet offers how to learn piano notes.

Being able to just tap or swipe across a digital screen to play an instrument helps Alzheimer’s patients build confidence regarding their new talent. Individuals who just prefer listening can operate an iPod or MP3 player – even if they lack the motor skills to do much else with their hands.

Image Credit: Vladimir Agafonkin