Much recent research shows that music can be beneficial to those living with dementia. It is fast becoming a significant part of dementia care both in care homes and by professional carers providing live-in care to people in their own homes.
Music is very powerful at unlocking memories and provides a platform to help with communication. This is particularly helpful for those who find it difficult to express themselves because of their condition.
Here we explain how music therapy is helpful to those living with dementia. We also provide tips on how you can use music to connect with your loved one.
The brain, dementia and music
Dementia describes different brain disorders that trigger a loss of brain function. Dementia damages brain cells and interferes with their ability to communicate with each other. Common symptoms include memory loss, confusion and problems with speech and understanding.
For people living with dementia, music can be a very powerful and effective cue for bringing them back to the sights and sounds of events in their lifetime. These are called music-evoked autobiographical memories (MEAMs). This is particularly helpful for those living with dementia who have problems with short-term memory but find it easier to access long-term memories.
Listening to music can bring back happy memories of events in a person’s lifetime like weddings or birthday celebrations. The emotional nature of both these events and the music itself can aid memory recall for a person with dementia.
In 2018, researchers at the University of Utah conducted a study that analysed the effect of hearing familiar music on those living with Alzheimer’s disease. They used an MRI scan to analyse brain activity after listening to music. They identified greater brain activity and connection between brain areas after being exposed to music.
What are the effects of music on people with dementia
Music has been shown to have a range of positive effects on people with dementia, including improving their quality of life and overall well-being. Here are some of the ways music can benefit those with dementia:
Enhancing social interaction: Listening to music can facilitate social interaction and communication between people with dementia and their carers or loved ones. Singing, dancing, and playing musical instruments together can create a sense of engagement, improving social skills and reducing feelings of loneliness.
Reducing agitation and anxiety: People with dementia may experience discomforting symptoms like agitation or anxiety. Research has shown that listening to calming music can help reduce these symptoms and improve overall mood.
Providing a sense of identity: Music is often associated with memories. People with dementia may find comfort and a sense of identity through listening to music that is familiar to them. This can help them feel more connected to their past and present selves whilst reducing feelings of confusion or disorientation.
Improving physical health: Music has even been shown to improve physical health in people with dementia. For example, it can help improve sleep patterns, reduce pain and discomfort and stimulate appetite.
Singing and dementia
Singing has many benefits for health and psychological well-being. Studies have shown that when people sing endorphins and oxytocin are released by the brain. This reduces stress and anxiety levels commonly experienced by those living with dementia. Endorphins are also linked to positive feelings and energy, and oxytocin with feelings of trust and bonding. All help those people living with dementia.
Singing is a mindful activity. Focusing your mind and body on signing allows you to switch off your stream of consciousness. It allows people with dementia to experience the benefits of living in the moment, distracted from any negative thoughts. Singing has been shown to significantly improve the cognitive abilities of those living with dementia.
Other health benefits of singing include:
A strengthened immune system – a protein antibody is released from singing that has known benefits to the immune system.
Improves breathing – when you sing, you increase your oxygen intake and lung capacity. This can help with your cardiovascular system and reduces anxiety and stress.
Strengthens the nervous system – the vagus nerve is connected to the vocal cords and connects the brain to various organs. It is a key part of the nervous system that influences breathing, digestion and heart rate.
Improving aerobic activity – singing exercises major muscle groups in the upper body, improving the efficiency of the cardiovascular system.
Several singing groups across the UK support people to live well with dementia through singing groups. This includes ‘Singing for the brain’ groups run nationwide in local communities by the Alzheimer’s Society.
There are numerous ways you can support your loved one to experience singing. Joining a local community choir, inviting their friends around to experience music at home or signing up for music therapy classes.
The role of music in dementia care
With all the benefits that music brings to those living with dementia, it is increasingly used in dementia care. No matter where a person is cared for, music can help people to develop and maintain relationships with those close to them or caring for them. This has a positive effect on a person’s overall well-being.
As part of a dementia care plan, music can be used to improve general attention, thinking, memory, speech and communication skills. This in turn then reduces frustration, anxiety and depression for many with dementia.
Music can be integrated into the day-to-day life of a person with dementia in several ways, either in a group or on a one-to-one basis. Every person living with dementia is different and it is important to understand what works for the individual. How they wish to listen to music, where, when and with who should be explored to understand what has the most positive effect. It is important to understand which music brings back positive memories.
This highly personalised approach considers personal needs and preferences and should be included in a person’s plan of care.
Some ideas for enjoying music include:
Singing in a group or choir
Listening quietly to music through headphones
Singing along to favourite pieces of music that evoke positive memories
Listening to a live performance either online at home or at a concert
How to use music therapy to connect with your loved one
Music therapy can be provided by a family member caring for a loved one, or by involving a trained music therapist to help a person express themselves and communicate. It has been proven to reduce anxiety which leads to positive feelings, perception, mood and behaviour.
Choose music your loved one likes
Positive reactions will come from music that a person can connect to. It might be the music they listen to regularly or music from their younger years. If you do not know, ask them what music they like, or find out from friends or other family members. Find out when they would like to listen to it or simply ask ‘what song would you like to hear now’.
Be aware of how music affects mood
When verbal communication is limited, use trial and error to find music that gets a positive reaction. Think about the music that was around in the younger years and play it. Find live concert performances from their youth or ones you know they have attended. Create a playlist of all the music they enjoy for different moods or times of the day. Be mindful of how different types of music affect mood.
Create a playlist of music
Think about the type of effect you want the playlist to have. A participatory playlist (to encourage dancing or singing) should feature upbeat tracks, with memorable choruses or rhythms.
A soothing, nostalgic playlist that engages memory should feature:
Songs that they’ve expressed a passion for
Songs popular in their youth
Songs relating to major life events (such as a wedding or major birthday)
Songs relating to groups that they have been a part of (such as your family, community groups, the army, or their favourite sports team)
Listening to music can be enjoyable for everyone. Use it as an opportunity to spend quality time together. Try tapping to the rhythm with them, dancing or just moving to the beat of the music or simply holding their hand. This can trigger memories and emotions that are not able to be expressed at any other time. Using photos or pictures alongside music can offer a chance for families to share memories and reminisce.
Spend quality time together
For many older adults, the music and chatter of the radio can provide a real source of comfort. A dementia radio is a normal radio that has been simplified so that people living with dementia or memory loss can use it easily. Dementia radios have easy-to-use features like large buttons, strong sound and the ability to be easily programmed.
There are also lots of radio stations and programs designed specifically for people with dementia. They provide a range of music, entertainment and information that is tailored to the needs and interests of people living with dementia. The content is designed to be engaging and stimulating, with a focus on triggering positive memories and emotions.
Useful music for dementia resources
Below you can access information and support relating to music and dementia.
We have been helping those living with dementia and their families for over 10 years. Our award-winning live-in care service is delivered by professional carers. Our carers are trained in how to care for someone living with dementia. They use a range of best practice techniques, including music therapy proven to provide reassurance, reduce anxiety and calm behaviours. This can reduce the need for antipsychotic drugs.
High-quality dementia care at home
We work with leading medical experts, academic bodies and leading charities to ensure our carers are trained to the highest standards when it comes to understanding dementia and how to support someone to live well with the condition.
We then develop a purposeful and meaningful programme of care. This programme positively improves overall health and well-being. With our own in-house Admiral Nurse, we can provide practical and emotional support to the person with dementia and their family.
In-depth dementia care planning
We ensure the care team that looks after your loved one is perfectly matched to your likes and interests. They will be skilled and equipped to meet all your loved one’s dementia care needs. This process means we understand their preferences, choices and how they wish to lead their life, as well as their care needs.
Highest service rating from care regulators in england and scotland
Unlike introduction agencies, we are fully regulated in England and Scotland. This means the care and support we provide are regularly inspected. We are the only dedicated live-in care provider in England to achieve an ‘Outstanding’ rating from the Care Quality Commission (CQC). We have achieved this rating in all five measures – safe, effective, caring, responsive and well-led.
In Scotland, our service has been inspected by the Care Inspectorate (CI). It has achieved the highest rating of a 6 (Excellent) for quality of care and support and 5 (very good) for staffing, management and leadership. We know this provides families with peace of mind that their loved one is receiving the best possible dementia care.
A fully managed service
Families benefit from our fully managed service delivered by care experts. This means you do not need to worry about supervising and managing the carer yourself. Our professional carers are supervised by an experienced care manager. We provide this support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This gives families peace of mind, whilst enjoying quality time with their loved ones. They do not have to worry about the tasks of caring.
Arranging dementia care at home
Once you have decided care at home is right for you and your loved one – we are here to help.
We will conduct a comprehensive assessment of your loved one’s needs. This covers not just their care needs, but how they wish to live their life. The assessment informs the care plan which will be created by an expert care manager, guided by clinical experts. The plan of care guides our professional care team to deliver the highest quality dementia care to your loved one, which includes music therapy if you wish.
Talk to us about our live in care services
Find out more about how we can help your loved one to live well in the comfort of their home – call our friendly experts today.
Dr Jane Pritchard is a consultant Admiral Nurse who specialises in the care and support of those living with dementia. She is a registered nurse with the Nursing and Midwifery Council specialising in mental health. She has over 20 years' experience working in care and has authored several publications on dementia care.