By Shari Flight
“Music imprints itself on the brain deeper than any other human experience. Music evokes emotion and emotion can bring with it memory. Music brings back the feeling of life when nothing else can.”Dr. Oliver Sacks
For almost everyone, music has been a staple in our lives for decades. Listening to music can elevate one’s mood, reduce stress, improve heart health, improve movement, and stimulate memories. All these positive outcomes from listening to music is what makes it so powerful for the person living with dementia. Three areas where the power of music is most effective for the person living with dementia is musical memory, movement, and comfort and engagement at the end of their life.
Individuals living with dementia struggle with the common symptom of having issues with their short-term memory. As they continue to progress, they will begin to lose their long-term memory as well. As this happens, it is common for caregivers to think that they will no longer be able to enjoy or engage in activities that once brought them so much joy. However, music can bring back memories that may have been lost. Think about yourself, and how you respond when you hear a song from your youth. The usual response is to turn the song up, smile from ear to ear, and enjoy the beautiful memories that come flooding in. I have seen this time and time again with residents I have cared for. However, there is one woman who always sticks out in my mind. I was leading a program about weddings, and to end my program I played the traditional wedding march song. Upon doing this, one of my residents who was always passive in all my programs, stood up while putting a hand on her hip and a hand on her head, and began to sway to the beat of the music. The caregivers all came running down to see her so engaged, because her typical response to programs was to sit and listen. Music is a powerful tool and such a fun and easy way for families to engage with their loved one regardless of where they are with their dementia journey.
Another symptom commonly seen as someone progresses with their dementia is the decline in one’s mobility. From walking slowly, shuffling, or getting “stuck” in your tracks this can be very frustrating for the individual. Through this progression one of the last things to be affected is the brains’ ability to recognize rhythm. If your loved one struggles with walking, by playing a song they will recognize and letting them catch the beat, they will be able to walk to the beat. This is so beautiful to see, and it allows them to stay independent and mobile for longer.
The final area where music can be incredibly powerful, is when someone reaches the end stages of their dementia. I have experienced firsthand the beautiful effect that music has on a person who was actively passing away due to the progression of their dementia. She was on hospice and expected to pass in the coming days. I wanted to make sure that she was comfortable, so I put on some headphones with her favorite music. Not long after did a smile appear on her face, her hands started tapping in place, and her feet were moving to the beat. By simply playing her favorite music, I was able to temporarily remove her from any pain or anxiety that she may be experiencing, while also giving her family a beautiful memory of her during her final days.
At The Cordwainer we recognize how powerful music is, and that is why we incorporated it into our Learned Environment curriculum. This curriculum has programs that are centered around music, art, and a foreign language. This allows residents to do anything from learning a new instrument, to enjoying music therapy with our very own violinist.
To put my words that I have written to life I have provided the following links of my favorite videos!
- Music and Memory: Ballerina with Alzheimer’s hears swan lake, begins to dance
- Music and Movement: Gait training for Parkinsons’s patient using music
- Music and end stage: Sundance Film Festival (2014) – Alive Inside: A Story Of Music & Memory Featurette
Shari Flight is The Cordwainer’s Director of Community Relations. She co-facilitates The Cordwainer memory care support groups alongside The Cordwainer’s Program Director Somita Ray.