Research Continues To Show How Music Helps People With Dementia

Have you ever wondered why you can immediately recall the lyrics to a song you knew well but haven’t heard in decades, even though you might have to stop and think for a minute before remembering what you ate for lunch yesterday?

As neurologists continue to learn more about how the brain functions, they’re starting to unlock the mysteries of why we remember the things we do. That information is also helping cognitive therapists develop effective new methods of communicating with patients who have Alzheimer’s disease or other type of dementia.

One method in particular is showing quite promising results: music therapy.

Well-Established Outcomes of Music Therapy

Numerous studies have been conducted to explore the effects of music on people with dementia, and the results have been overwhelmingly positive. Music therapy has been shown to:

  • Delay cognitive decline
  • Promote greater brain elasticity in older adults
  • Calm people with dementia who are displaying signs of agitation
  • Fight symptoms of depression in dementia patients, such as failure to thrive
  • Reduce the need for treatment with prescription drugs, in some cases
  • Improve quality of life for many seniors with dementia
  • Reach those who can no longer communicate verbally, allowing them to engage with their caregivers and family members

It’s this last point that researchers at Northwestern University focused on in a recent study conducted in collaboration with the Institute for Therapy through the Arts, or ITA.

Musical Bridges to Memory

In the Northwestern University study, researchers used an intervention developed at ITA called Musical Bridges to Memory.

The intervention was a weekly series of 45-minute sessions in which patients with dementia — and their family caregivers — interacted before, during, and after a musical performance. Each session consisted of a singer and an ensemble of chamber musicians performing songs that were well-known several decades ago, like show tunes from the musical “Oklahoma.” These were songs the older adults would have been familiar with in their “younger days,” as the researchers put it.

During the performance, trained music therapists interacted with study participants (the seniors and their caregivers), encouraging them to play simple instruments (e.g., tambourines and shakers), sing, and dance.

In the conversations that followed the performances, the people with dementia were more socially engaged. Specifically, they had more eye contact, they were less distracted or agitated, and their mood was elevated.

A control group of similar older adults who did not attend the music sessions (but did receive usual daily care) did not show these kinds of changes during the three months of the Musical Bridges to Memory program.

Of note, the researchers found that even though some of the seniors wouldn’t communicate much with their caregivers before the program was implemented, they did begin to play, sing, and dance with their caregivers during the sessions. Even more encouraging, these changes in behavior persisted outside of the sessions.

“As the program progressed, caregivers invited multiple family members,” said Jeffrey Wolfe, a neurologic music therapist-fellow at ITA who was one of the intervention’s leaders. “It became a normalizing experience for the whole family. All could relate to their loved one despite their degree of dementia.”

These findings are no surprise to us. We frequently see how music therapy improves the way residents who are with us for memory care interact with our staff, other residents, and their own family members.

Music Therapy at Park Senior Villas

Weekly music sessions and a drumming program are among the regular activities we offer in our music therapy program. All residents are welcome to participate, and we invite family members to join in, as well as guests who are interested in exploring what our communities are like. If you’re curious, you can make a reservation to join us.

Music plays a key role in many of our other activities, too. Karaoke is a favorite for many residents, whether they’re with us for assisted living or memory care. It’s not at all unusual for two or three to perform together and for others in the audience to sing along. The whole point is to have fun, after all.

Our activities directors also use music in games that residents play as a group, such as having them finish song titles or lyrics. Music is a favorite trivia category, as well.

Sometimes it’s more of a spontaneous activity. Several residents may be in the kitchen with the activity director baking something aromatic as a way of stimulating memories, or they could be folding laundry together (a task many enjoy because it gives them a sense of purpose). One person may start humming or singing softly, and the next thing you know, they’re all singing and laughing. It’s a joy to watch when that happens.

And, of course, there’s live music at most of our social events. That may not technically qualify as music therapy per se, but it definitely adds to everyone’s enjoyment. Who doesn’t love watching their grandkids dance and have a good time? That may be the best therapy of all.

We Love Having Fun, but We’re Serious About Our Care

We offer a full continuum of care in each of our locations. Whether you’re looking for assisted living in Chandler, AZ, memory care in Tucson, or extended living care for seniors in Goodyear, AZ, you’ll find all levels of care at each Park Senior Villas community.

You can learn more about the specific activities we offer in all four locations and view our activity calendar for each community while you’re here on our website. If you’d like to take a virtual or in-person tour, let us know and we’ll be happy to arrange it.

Probably the best way to experience what it’s like to be a resident at Park Senior Villas, though, is to check out our upcoming events and choose one you’d like to attend.   

If You’re Still Wondering

The reason you can still remember all of those song lyrics from decades ago? It has to do with repetition and what’s referred to as motor memory, which is different from short-term and long-term memory.

Dr. Glen Finney, a behavioral neurologist at Geisinger, explained it this way: “The act of singing along many times makes remembering lyrics part of your motor memory. And we can recall anything stored as motor memory without much effort. Just like we can ride a bike or swim easily, even if it’s been a while.” By the way, researchers believe our brains hold on to musical memories longer than any other kind. So, go ahead and sing along with your favorite tunes. It’ll make you feel good now, and the memories you’ll be creating just might come in handy later.