Why, Oliver Sacks asks, does music have so much power? In a fascinating article first published in 2006 he suggests this is a question that goes to the heart of being human. We turn to music, he says, because we need it, because of its ability to move us, to induce feelings and moods, states of mind.
We may still not know why, but those who work with people with autism or frontal lobe syndromes, and particularly with people with dementia, have recognised the power that music has to generate an emotional response, familiar music perhaps evoking memories of earlier events in people’s lives that cannot be reached any other way.
Research undertaken by the University of Iowa confirms the relevance of this for people living with dementia. UI researchers showed individuals with Alzheimer’s disease clips of sad and happy movies. Five minutes later, most were unable to recall any factual information about the films, and one person didn’t even remember watching any movies. Yet these people experienced sustained states of sadness and happiness.
The researchers concluded: “The fact that forgotten events can continue to exert a profound influence on a patient’s emotional life highlights the need for caregivers to avoid causing negative feelings and to try to induce positive feelings.”
Attempts to ensure an individual’s emotional wellbeing, therefore, should be at the heart of all care, and music is increasingly recognised as a powerful tool to assist in this aim. Of course, it has to be remembered that everyone is unique and what works for one person will not be appropriate for the next. A carer who likes nothing better than listening to hours of punk should not assume that those in their care feel the same way, equally, don’t assume that there isn’t a punk enthusiast amongst them either!
If we are looking for something to lift our mood, classical music is best, even if it’s not normally your favourite listening, according to Dr Mike Lowis. ‘In order to activate both sides of the brain, music needs to be complex so pop music and anything with a heavy beat doesn’t usually work,’ he says. (His study of peak experiences found that Wagner was more uplifting than Mozart.)
However, the inspirational and emotional story told in the American film Alive Inside, winner of the Audience Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, would suggest that the true power of music is realised when particular tracks or genres are used to trigger memories and restore a sense of ‘self’, even in those with profound memory loss.
A quick story on how my husband continued to enjoy music as he neared the end of his life in a care home, rarely speaking, unable to do anything for himself, profoundly confused. As I prepared to say goodbye after one of my daily visits I asked him if he’d like any music on. He didn’t respond so I saw that a CD of one of his favourite musicians, Eric Clapton, was in the player and pressed the Play button, only to hear Geoff loudly lament “Not again!” as the sound of Clapton’s wonderful guitar playing filled the room. I had clearly not been the only lazy person in his room that day! It takes more than popping a CD into the player for music to work its magic.
Resources on the use of music in dementia care:
Read more about Alive Inside and the work of Music and Memory, watch the trailer and purchase the DVD here.
Thanks for the Memory uses the power of music to create ‘Memory Moments’ and was established by Tim Ashcroft and his wife Renee, to help those living with memory loss or dementia and to help their families. They put on concerts for those with dementia and raise money to help other groups working with dementia patients and their families.
Playlist for Life has a vision: that every person with dementia has access to a unique playlist of their life, to help unlock who they are. Playlist for Life encourages families and caregivers to create a playlist of personally meaningful music on an ipod for people with dementia.
Lost Chord is a charity dedicated to improving the quality of life and well-being of those living with dementia. “The area of the brain associated with musical patterns seems to remain responsive well after the ability to speak has diminished. This may be why someone unable to talk, can sing all the words to a familiar song in the right order.”
Singing for the Brain is a service provided by Alzheimer’s Society.
Music in Hospitals Scotland is a registered charity and aims to improve the quality of life for people of all ages in care through the provision of professional live music. Concerts take place in hospitals, hospices, care homes, day centres and special needs schools, bringing the benefits of live music to people who need it most.
The British Association for Music Therapy is a good source for further information.
The fabulous infographic from 3SpiritUK, the health and social care training company, contains a wealth of information on why and how music can help in the care of people with dementia.Click here for further information.
Full time carer for his Mum, Martyn has written about Dementia, Music and Emotions.
“Music can soothe, stimulate and bring to mind long-forgotten memories” say Age UK in their information sheet on Dementia and Music.
5 reasons why music boosts brain activity, from Alzheimers.Net
Saga has some suggestions on how to use music as therapy.
The BUDI Orchestra is the first time that we’re aware of where people with early stages of dementia have been given the opportunity to work alongside orchestral musicians to learn (or relearn) instruments in order to gain a better understanding of learning with dementia.
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