Music and emotion are linked in a powerful way. People respond to music from a very early age, before words and language are developed, and this continues even towards the end of our lives, when verbal abilities may be lost.
Music and dementia
Music accesses different parts of the brain than language, so music can be used to communicate or engage with someone who has been diagnosed with dementia, even if they no longer speak or respond to other people’s words.
Playing soothing music to a person may inspire an emotional reaction in them. Playing music that meant something to them, such as a favourite song, a piece of music from their wedding, or a tune they used to sing to their children, can tap into powerful memories and emotions.
What are the benefits?
• Music can be a useful way to change somebody’s mood, especially during personal care. For instance, if a person diagnosed with dementia resists your efforts to help them get dressed, playing soothing music or a favourite song can help lessen any distress.
• Music helps people with dementia express feelings and ideas.
• Music can help the person connect with others around them.
• It can encourage social interaction and promotes activity in groups.
• It can reduce social isolation.
• It can facilitate physical exercise and dance or movement.
Tips for using music
• Choose music that the person likes. If you aren’t sure, look to see if they have a record or tape collection. If not, investigate what were the popular musicians and songs from an era in their youth and give it a try. Internet services such as Spotify have lots of music you can listen to for free, through your computer (these also play adverts however, which can be loud, so keep an eye on the screen).
• Watch to see how the person reacts. If they seem uncomfortable or distressed, turn it off and desist for a while, before trying some different music at a different time. If they respond positively then use the music to engage with them. Do they tap their fingers? Or hum along? You can try doing so too.
Things to be aware of
• Start with gentle, quiet music. But make the music a focal point, so consider putting a record, tape or CD on in front of the person and adjusting the volume as applicable.
• Music can awaken negative emotions as well as positive ones, so watch the person closely for any signs of discomfort and turn the music off if you think it is causing undue distress. Expressing sadness may be a normal reaction to a strong memory or association to the music and just sitting with the person during this time may be the best response.
The Admiral Nurse Dementia Helpline is for anyone with a question or concern about dementia.