The Magic of Music Therapy for Alzheimer's

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Written by Jeff Smith

“Music is the universal language of mankind.” - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Whether it’s the bluesy tones of classic country music, the melodic harmonies of an old-fashioned R&B song, or the energizing instrumentals of a rock n’ roll band, music creates impressions in a human being’s soul. By pressing play on a favorite song, a lifetime of memories can come flooding back and be experienced all over again.

And that is precisely the goal when it comes to music therapy for Alzheimer's treatment - to allow patients to relive past memories through song. The healing power of music has incredible potential for improving the quality of life for Alzheimer’s patients, and the first time you see a loved one with Alzheimer's singing along to a favorite song from their youth, the value of music therapy and the happiness that it brings becomes immediately clear.

Dr. Oliver Sacks from the Alzheimer’s Music Project condones music as a valuable therapy method for Alzheimer’s patients: “When I’ve worked with people with Alzheimer’s and various forms of dementia, some of them are confused, some are agitated, some lethargic, some have lost language. But all of them, without exception, respond to music.”

Some of the major advantages of exposing loved ones with Alzheimer’s to music include:

  1. A marked improvement in their overall happiness
  2. Improved cognition through active brain engagement
  3. Therapy that is free and can be done in your own home
  4. Serving as a mental anchor for those suffering from Alzheimer’s to use when things get unsteady

Music Makes People Happy

The first time that music is introduced as a form of therapy for Alzheimer's patients has been consistently described as a “night and day” difference. All of a sudden, a loved one that was bordering on completely non-responsive is smiling, swaying with the beat, and humming. Their entire disposition is changed instantly.

Suddenly their mind is back in the jazz club where they met their spouse, at a high school football game for homecoming, or road tripping with a dear friend at the start of summer vacation. A simple song becomes associated with a special moment in time, tapping into a deep instinctual place in the mind that triggers overwhelming happiness associated with that memory. That is the power of music when introduced to the life of an Alzheimer’s patient, it can genuinely feel like magic.

If you have any experience with Alzheimer’s, you know that happiness is incredible therapy. Not only for the person suffering from this terrible disease, but also the caretaker(s). For many, a single smile from their loved one is enough to keep them moving forward.

Engaging Your Brain with Music

The core of most treatment and care for Alzheimer’s patients is to stimulate the brain to keep it active and healthy. There are countless studies that credit maintaining an active brain as the best way to keep a high quality of life when living with a memory-related disease. There are a number of studies that show that maintaining a steady level of brain activity improves blood flow to the brain, and also increases the brain's ability to form important connections between different emotional centers.

Doctors at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center found that when individuals listened to their favorite songs from their youth, connections were immediately made between the brain areas responsible for memory and social emotion. They even found that music therapy can actively help to restore connections in the brain that were broken through illness or injury.

What does this mean? That it might actually be possible that those immediate, happy emotional responses to musical therapy are also having long-term benefits, such as memory recovery, and increased social awareness.

Effortless Therapy

Music therapy is a truly low-impact, high-reward activity that many doctors believe should be universally implemented for memory care. It gives Alzheimer’s patients an important sense of control, and makes them more likely to respond well to the treatment. Below are some noted benefits of music therapy for Alzheimer's:

  1. It is incredibly simple to administer music therapy
  2. There are no potentially negative side-effects
  3. It is completely unobtrusive
  4. It is extremely low-cost or likely completely free -  All you need is a good set of headphones or speakers, and a device to play music from (try using Spotify to search for your loved one's favorite songs).

Music as an Anchor

Individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s often have a feeling of being lost mentally, and have trouble pinning down exactly where they are without some sort of anchor to “bring them home.” Often, the patient's caregivers serve as this anchor, but music can serve this role as well. It isn’t uncommon for an anchor song to be able to bring Alzheimer’s patients out of states of complete trance.

How can you establish music as an anchor for your loved one? 

  1. Choose a particular song or genre of music that was special to your loved one from their youth.
  2. Connect this song/genre with a state of calm in your loved one by playing it to them often when they are relaxed.
  3. After this song becomes associated with a state of calm for them, playing it to them when they are having a "bad moment" can do wonders.

Recent studies have also shown Alzheimer’s patients reacting in miraculous ways to being taken on a “journey through their life” with music. Early results show that this method actively increases overall happiness, gives patients a strong sense of control, and effectively stimulates the memory center in the brain.

How can you create a "journey through life" with music?

  1. Create a playlist that starts off with popular music from their youth and formative years
  2. Then select songs that your loved one enjoyed during adulthood
  3. Finish off the playlist with songs from their golden years.

The Magic of Music

While music therapy for Alzheimer's might not be a true cure, many caregivers and Alzheimer’s patients consider it to be like magic. Given the ease of implementing music therapy, and its success rate at increasing quality of life for people living with Alzheimer's, many professionals agree that music therapy should be used widely as a legitimate means of therapy and treatment for Alzheimer's and other dementias. The first time you see your loved one's reaction to music therapy, their happiness rolling across the room in waves, you immediately know that the magic of music isn’t just a cheap platitude, it is very real.

If you would like to explore music therapy as an option for your loved one, or if you are looking for a in home care Tampa provider with experience caring for individuals with Alzheimer's, American In-Home Care can help. We refer qualified and compassionate care providers that are matched directly with your loved one's personality and needs. We can refer care providers that specialize in Alzheimer's and dementia care, and who have training and continuing education in this area to ensure they provide the highest quality of care to your loved one, and that you and your loved one are in the best hands.