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Music and dementia: Here’s how it works as an effective combination

Published on:11 May 2021, 13:55pm IST
The power of music can help in dealing with dementia in more ways than one. Here’s all you need to know about it.
Neha Sinha
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Music can help you tackle dementia in an effective manner. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

“Music can heal the wound that medicine cannot touch”

These words by author Debasish Mridha hold true in every possible way. Dementia is a complex and debilitating neurodegenerative disease. It occurs when parts of our brain increasingly get damaged over time, causing a decline in multiple cognitive abilities. Loss of language and vocabulary slowly steals away the ability to connect, express  and share feelings. 

Management of dementia requires both pharmacological and non-pharmacological  approaches. Music has an important role to play in managing persons with dementia (PwD).  For the last 3-4 decades, various studies have been undertaken to understand the  relationship of music with PwD and the role it plays, either educational, recreational or  therapeutic. Many studies prove the efficiency of music as a complementary therapy with  no known side-effects. The authors of ‘Nonpharmacological interventions to reduce  behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia: A systematic review (BioMed Research  International, 2015)’, found that music interventions have a significant impact on biological,  psychological, and cognitive symptoms of dementia. They focus on more relational  aspects, therefore they should be considered as a primary intervention. 

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While every intervention we use needs to be evidence-based, this does not come as a  surprise. Music has been a versatile companion through most of our lives. As babies we  would fall asleep to lullabies, in school music or dance would be one of the first hobbies we  pick up, as teenagers we cry though heartbreaks or get high on headbanging, and as adults, it  is often a reliable stress-relieving companion. Music remains a constant companion  throughout our lives. 

The power of music

Musical memory is often preserved, even in the later stages of dementia. There is enough  research and evidence that talks about the fact that music is capable of evoking strong  positive emotions. Music can lower the body’s level of cortisol (a hormone that can  contribute to feelings of stress and anxiety), and it can also stimulate positive feelings by  triggering other chemical reactions in the brain. 

It is an engaging and emotionally powerful  medium. Music provides behavioral, emotional benefits; and assists the elderly to improve his/her quality of life. We have seen enough instances in which music has a strong effect on an  elder’s moods, cognitive abilities, and even their physiology, resulting in overall  enhancement of well-being. For your loved ones with dementia, music promotes overall health & wellness, elicits positive memories, improves cognition and speech, encourages self-expression, increases self-esteem, dispels anxiety, assists in memory recall, as well as provides a  communicative structure.  

Using music as an effective strategy

At our dementia care homes, we ensure that music becomes an integral part of the daily  schedule and overall care plan. Caregivers can encourage their loved ones with dementia to  interact with music in different ways throughout the day. Elders can start their day with  spiritual or religious music of choice, ADLs (activities of daily living), which can be stressful  such as bathing or grooming, but can be managed better by playing favourite tunes to build a  positive association. During the day, it can be used as an active session of antakshari or  karaoke or group sessions, and at evening or night it can help overcome sundowning or sleep  cycle issues. One of the greatest roles that music plays is also to be a companion. It also  helps to overcome the feeling of void, nothingness for elders, especially when they are to  themselves. 

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The goal of music therapy in dementia should be to facilitate well-being and positive  emotions. Through this, other symptoms such as agitation, anxiety and incoherence or  confusion can be managed more effectively. Music therapy assists at the various stages of  dementia, whether it is early or late stage. It helps develop a multisensory communicative  environment for late-stage dementia, when communication is a huge challenge. Even in end  of life dementia, music therapy is seen to aid in expression as well as providing a warm  environment. Music is one of the main ingredients that adds colour to the lives of the  elderly with dementia.  

I would like to end with what the German poet Heinrich Heine once said, “When words  leave off, music begins.” 

Neha Sinha Neha Sinha

Neha Sinha is a dementia specialist and has gained international recognition for creating dementia services in India. Initial work stint of Neha was as a counselor with Sanjivini, a Delhi based nongovernmental organisation for Mental Health. Thereafter she joined hands with Epoch Elder Care homes as the Head of Operations and later she became the CEO of Epoch Elder Care. Epoch Elder Care is India’s experts in Dementia and Assisted Living for elders