The Power of Music in Dementia Care
Yesterday, I borrowed a dear friend’s car. In it, I found a CD we use to listen to all the time in grad school. Almost immediately, tears came to my eyes as a montage of moments filled my mind. This is the power of music. To transport us back to another part of our story, to connect us, to make us feel seen and understood. “One does not have to be especially musical to respond to music, to recognize music, or to react to music emotionally,” shares the late neuroscience legend Dr. Oliver Sacks. “Virtually everyone does, and they will continue to do so with dementia.”
What is happening in between our ears that elicits this universal and emotional response to music? Neuroimaging continues to improve and research on living with dementia is gaining traction. A picture of what is happening is beginning to emerge. “What seems to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head,” explains Petr Janata of UC Davis’ Center for Mind and Brain. This phenomenon lasts through the journey of dementia. The part of the brain activated by music is the medial prefrontal cortex. This is often one of the last parts of the brain to be changed by dementia. Janata has seen music open new pathways to memories thought lost. “The parts of the brain which respond to music are very close to the parts of the brain concerned with memory, emotion, and mood. So familiar songs will bring back memories. All that has been lost in amnesia will come back, as if it were embedded in a familiar song,” explains Sacks.
“What I would hate to see is people getting an iPod and headphones put on their heads and being left in a corner of their room all day, thinking it’s going to improve their lives,” explains dementia inclusivity crusader and geriatrician, Al Power. “If the use of personalized music improves people’s memory retrieval and their ability to communicate and engage, this is a magic moment that should not be ignored. Use these periods of heightened ability to converse, find out more about the person, understand his or her needs, and cultivate your relationship. Once music opens that door to improved engagement, you have to use it!”
There is no magical playlist for people with dementia. The beautiful effects of music are felt by all of us, though often there are more pronounced effects for people living with dementia. This is because, as the late Alzheimer’s self-advocate Richard Taylor would say, “we are not provided with meaningful opportunities that allow us to continue to experience joy, purpose, and engagement in life.” The best music for your loved one living with dementia is the music that helps you connect with them.