Caregivers make music a part of daily activities for those with dementia. Photo: Shutterstock.

When words fail, music speaks.

Currently, 564,000 Canadians are living with dementia. According to the Alzheimer Society Canada, that number will increase by another 66 percent by 2031.

While the causes of dementia are not fully known, studies show the power of music can be benefit to those with the disease. Music helps with memory and attention, manage emotional and mental health issues by reducing depression and anxiety, and improve physical health by using music to support movement.

Listening to music can help ease agitation and offer comfort. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, losgofres.

“Music can reduce agitation and improve behavioural issues in the middle stages or even in the later stages of dementia,” says Nalini Sen, who is the director of research at the Alzheimer Society of Canada. “Music proves a way to connect.”

Sen says music – especially singing – can unlock memories and kick start the grey matter of the brain. “Music reaches some parts of the damaged parts of the brain in ways other communications can’t,” she says. “It can reignite parts of the brain that are damaged and be more engaged.”

“Music reaches some parts of the damaged parts of the brain in ways other communications can’t. It can reignite parts of the brain that are damaged
and be more engaged.”

Amy Clements-Cortes is a music therapist and assistant professor, faculty of music at the University of Toronto. As a music therapist, working with patients with dementia may include activities such as singing, moving to music, reminiscence, improvisation, and song composition.

“A typical group might open with a welcome song to help orient the person to the date and season,” she says. “This would be followed by singing some familiar songs and perhaps encouraging the participants to move to the music and play small percussion instruments.”

Caregivers and families can also bring the power of music into the home. Caregivers should select music that is familiar or memorable to the person with cognitive and memory issues. If they’re able to, let the person you are caring for choose their own music, recommends Sen. Or consult with their family about their preferences from earlier in their loved one’s life.

“Chose a source of music not interrupted with commercials, which can cause confusion to the individual,” says Sen. “Instead, choose tranquil music to calm, while music with a faster beat, possibly from their childhood, can boost spirits.”

Music can reach parts of the brain and stimulate activity. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, David Take Photos.

However, Clements-Cortes cautions not to put headphones on and leave people with dementia alone when listening to the music. “It should be done in the presence of a caregiver to ensure the person with dementia is supported if they wish for the music to stop, or if they have a negative reaction to it,” she says.

Sen also suggests you further avoid sensory overload by shutting the window if there is noise coming from outside and turn off the television.

Clements-Cortes recommends singing to people with dementia as you provide care, such as when bathing, feeding or toileting – and to use songs that are meaningful to the individual.

Julia Beth Kowaleski, a music therapist and president of the Music Therapy Association of Ontario also recommends asking questions while listening to music to prompt memories. “Ask, ‘do you know who sings this song?’ or ‘were you married during that year?’” she says.

In addition, Kowaleski recommends using song to create musical mnemonics. “Use a simple melody and create words to help remember useful information such as, steps for brushing teeth, names of family members, or a grocery list.”

To further the impact of music, caregivers can also encourage movement, such as dancing or clapping.

Families and caregivers can look into the Music Project. This project from the Alzheimer Society personalizes a playlist for free to support people with dementia and improve quality of their life. Caregivers and families can apply for an iPod online and select music to provide them with a “soundtrack of their life.” The free iPods come preloaded with personalized music for people across Canada.

Clements-Cortes has also created a free document, which can help families and caregivers prepare a playlist.

For more information on the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada, visit their website.