The Power of Music in Dementia Care

A client at Christian Health Care Adult Day Services of Wyckoff was reluctant to participate in activities due to limitations from dementia and Parkinson’s disease. When staff learned how much he missed playing the trombone in a band, they encouraged him to bring the instrument and perform a song with a scheduled musical entertainer.

“Now he plays every month with this entertainer and even brings his own microphone to sing,” says MJ Paulison, Assistant Administrator/Activities Director of the program. “Not only does he feel accomplished again, but other clients praise his talent and make him feel like the musician that he once was.”

At the Courtyard, a home for individuals in early to mid-stages of memory loss at The Longview Assisted Living Residence, staff often sing to help residents “dance” to and from an activity or meal.

“Residents with dementia may ‘freeze’ during movement, causing them to stop suddenly or require a wheelchair for transportation,” says Rachel Yahes, ATR-BC, LCAT, Longview Activities Director. “This singing technique, which originates from Rhythmic Auditory Stimulation principles, prompts residents to move their bodies in sync with the rhythm and supports their level of independence while ambulating.”

As the day winds down, tunes from bygone eras float through Heritage Manor East Nursing Home memory-care residence. During this time when individuals with dementia often experience sundowning – confusion, restlessness, and/or irritability – agitation is replaced with relaxation and happiness as residents sing along to familiar lyrics, tapping their hands and feet.

“This daily evening music ritual has made a significant impact on our residents’ quality of life,” says Linda Bunker, ADC, Activities Director for Heritage Manor and Southgate behavior-management unit.

When melodies and rhythms were incorporated into the staff’s daily greeting for a Ramapo Ridge Psychiatric Hospital (RRPH) patient, he responded well to the Positive Physical Approach, a technique for communicating verbally and non-verbally with individuals with dementia. He became cheerful and brighter, could focus longer, and was more willing to complete therapeutic tasks.

“For some patients, if we sing a familiar song when we say hello, they sing along with us. This contact helps strengthen bonds and build a trusting relationship between patients and activity staff,” says Guylaine Mazure, ATR, ACC, CALA, RRPH Activities Manager. “When patients respond positively to music, they become more alert, communication skills improve, and negative behaviors decrease.”

Throughout CHCC’s senior-life and mental-health residences and programs, music is a vital therapeutic component, particularly for individuals with dementia. It offers tremendous emotional, physical, and behavioral benefits. Because areas in the brain linked to music remain virtually untouched by dementia, musical memories are often preserved despite the disease’s progression. Appropriate music can reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and agitation.

Music is abundantly and thoughtfully incorporated into daily life for CHCC residents, patients, clients, and consumers. Live entertainment by professional musicians; performances by area religious institutions, schools, choirs, and orchestras; hymn sings; music-in-motion exercise; instrument appreciation with local music teachers; overhead music; and television music channels are just some ways music is enjoyed.

“We assess patients’ interest, and develop and conduct music-related programs based on their needs,” Ms. Mazure says. “We offer a variety of programs, such as drumming circles, music improvisation, themed musical special events, and good old-fashioned sing-alongs.”

“Music, in all its forms, works,” Ms. Paulison says. “Even the most confused individual often remembers lyrics to a song from his or her younger lives, which will then trigger memories and even discussion. For those who are unable to vocalize, melodies and sounds can often soothe agitation and bring about joy.”

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