It is Saturday- dementia and music therapy day. I will never forget that day. I was working on a senior behavioral health unit. The activities director had asked a friend of mine to come in and play her guitar and piano for the patients we had on the unit at the time.
We had a patient at the time, Agnes, in the very late stages of dementia. She was no longer able to care for herself. In fact, she was total care. She did not respond to anything that we said or did. She would just sit back in her reclining chair we would place her in and just sit until we moved her to return her to her room.
As my friend played the guitar, she would take a seat next to different patients and play a tune based on a request or information that we had gotten from the family or the chart.
On this particular day, when she sat next to Agnes, there was no response at all. I told my friend that Agnes used to sing for the church choir and loved gospel songs. I learned from the family that Agnes started singing in the church choir when she was young and it had always been a part of her life.
As my friend started to play and sing some gospel songs she knew, a great transformation took place over Agnes’ face. Her face lit up, her eyes, instead of glazed over, started to actually watch my friend sing as she played the guitar. Agnes actually tried to sing with the guitar player. And we did not even know she could still talk! It touched the hearts of those that have provided care for her over the time she had been in the hospital.
What occurs with the brain and music?
It is not known how the brain processes music, but, what scientists do know is that that music is processed in many different parts of the brain. An individual may have a personal experience and a piece of music that is associated with that experience and becomes the stimulus for memories. Even in the late stages of dementia, a person may feel emotions and even the memory of the experience when they hear that piece of music.
Researchers believe there is a link between that brains auditory cortex and the limbic system (where emotions are processed). Many researchers believe that individuals with dementia and other neurological damage can actually improve their ability to physically move, and remember things by listening to music.
Many studies done with those with dementia have repeatedly shown that familiar and pleasurable music has had an affect on negative or challenging behaviors to decrease stress, agitation and anxiety. This is a behavioral intervention that has been successful at avoiding the use of medications.
Music was also found to increase sociability and the cognitive ability of the dementia patient. Music cannot stop the disease process, but it can improve the quality of life of the person suffering from this terrible disease.
View this ABC on music and memory special here:
More on Understanding Dementia Behaviors here