Music Lifts Mood and Memory in Seniors with Dementia

woman enjoying music therapy for dementia

Alice has lived in a The Villas at Green Hill® at Green Hill for a little more than a month and still has difficulties adjusting to her new environment. Alice suffers from dementia. She struggles focusing on daily living tasks and group activities, and repeatedly asks to go home. Her family is happy she is in a safe environment and in a spacious, private bedroom with her familiar furniture and belongings around her. The intimacy of the home setting and the loving, dedicated caregivers give them comfort, but they worry about her agitation, especially in the late afternoon. The music therapist, Jen, comes to the house weekly and after forty-five minutes, Alice is calm, happy and responding to caregiver cues. Alice’s family is recognizing the power music has in their mother’s quality of life.

“Music Therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional… in which music is used within a therapeutic relationship to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals.” American Music Therapy Association

The Benefits of Music Therapy for Individuals with Dementia

Research has shown that music therapy is a successful, non-pharmaceutical approach for seniors with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Music therapy for dementia addresses declines in cognition, attention span, the organization of thought, the ability to initiate tasks, to follow instructions and to regulate emotions. The application of music therapy techniques provides valuable support for caregivers when assisting seniors with dementia in daily living tasks and in caring for their emotional well-being.

“Music therapy is goal based,” says Jen Knittel BS, MT-BC, a board-certified music therapist at Green Hill in West Orange, New Jersey. “We look to individualize our programs to engage each person at their level of capability and to reach them where their needs are to help reduce their stressors.”

Stressors for seniors with Alzheimer’s or dementia encompass areas such as general anxiety, sundowning (late day confusion), motivation for daily living tasks, an inability to engage, depression, and declining communication skills.

Passive Listening – Music and Memory

Songs from a person’s past elicit memories. Emotional music can play an important role in the recall memory process. Familiar music can act as mental triggers for activities and emotional triggers for mood.

As part of music therapy for dementia, a playlist can be created for each senior to listen to during waking and morning tasks, engagement and socialization during the day, calming and relaxation for the late afternoon and evening rituals for bedtime. Sleep can help a senior understand what time of day it is and what is expected of them, bringing a sense of control and ease as they move through their day.

“Music goes right to stimulating the amygdala, a part of the brain, which is responsible for emotions and memory,” says Knittel. “Music can help shape a senior’s routine and guide them through their day.”

Interactive Music and Dementia

Live music, sing-a-longs and karaoke can engage seniors in verbal and communication skills, enhance focus and stimulate social interaction. Singing encourages spontaneous responses and generate emotional well-being.

For verbal content and context, words and instructions sung are better remembered than spoken words. Songs created with familiar tunes, with prompts for eating, oral hygiene, hair brushing and other daily living tasks can engage and motivate a senior to initiate and remain on task.

Combining Music and Movement

Music and physical activity combined, such as playing instruments and dancing, can improve cognitive skills and alleviate agitation, aggression, depression, apathy and wandering. It’s important to use instruments with simple timbres and instant, strong biofeedback, for example a frame drum or rhythm sticks. If the senior is unable to play the instrument themselves, place it on them or in their hand and play a beat that their body will feel.

Utilizing familiar dance tunes from the past can encourage participation, create a sense of identity – a reminder of “who I am”, and enhance physical functionality. Including family and friends in the activity can increase engagement, as well.

Music Therapy for Dementia at Green Hill

Jen Knittel, BS, MT-BC leads the Music Therapy program at Green Hill, which includes a certified Music and Memory program across living settings in the The Villas at Green Hill, the Assisted Living residences and the Memory Care neighborhood. Music therapy in a group setting increases social interaction, self-expression, sensory stimulation, guided reminiscence and increased quality of life.

“An individual’s needs shape what music I provide and in what context I provide it. Each Green Hill resident has varying needs to address. Yet, after a 45 minutes session of listening, singing, or playing instruments, residents are more engaged, calmer, feedback loops are interrupted, verbal cues are more productive, and everyone, residents and caregivers alike are happier”.

For more information about memory care services at Green Hill, we welcome you to contact us today.