Music can have amazing affects on our emotions and well being. It can help us feel calm when we're distressed, happy when we're sad, or peaceful when we're anxious.
And that's just when we're passively listening. Imagine what music can do when used clinically and therapeutically.
According to the American Music Therapy Association, music therapy is "the clinical and evidence-based use of musical interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship." It is practiced by a credentialed professional and has the ability to help with a variety of needs in individuals- whether those are physical, emotional, cognitive, or even social.
For those with Alzheimer's, this means music therapy has the ability improve mood, temper behavioral issues, and even improve cognitive functioning. There is no cure for Alzheimer's disease… but music therapy has the potential to help our loved ones connect with their world and emphasize their independence and strengths.
The Benefits of Music Therapy
There are several reported benefits of using music therapy to aid those with Alzheimer's disease. Keep in mind that music therapy is practiced by a credentialed music therapist. So while encouraging your loved one to listen to relaxing music can be an excellent way to bring happiness and peace, it is different than the actual practice of music therapy.
Below are some specific benefits of music therapy for seniors with Alzheimer's:
Music therapy can adjust mood. Music has the power to transform people's mood—especially seniors with Alzheimer's who may feel sad, confused, or lonely. Music therapy can reduce the agitation that often accompanies the disease, and can even help our loved ones manage daily stress. For those experiencing sundowning, music therapy can help prevent nighttime distress and frustration. Additionally, using songs from youth may elicit joy or feelings of familiarity and comfort.
Music therapy can help with physical functioning. As Alzheimer's progresses, seniors often have trouble with daily functions, such as walking, bathing, and eating. Music therapy is often used to help encourage movement at all stages of Alzheimer's, whether that means dancing (for those who are able), clapping, or simply waving your arms to the rhythm of the song. Music therapy is also used to help improve gait—the tempo of an upbeat song can be a great pacesetter and confidence booster when working on walking.
Music therapy can help communicate emotional connections. Seniors with Alzheimer's often lose the ability to communicate affection to loved ones, which can be one of the most difficult stages of the disease for caregivers and family members. However, music therapy can help your relative overcome these boundaries. It can encourage dancing, which in turn encourages embracing. This has helped several couples that have lost the ability to communicate affection regain that connection. For those who are not as mobile, music therapy can still help communicate connections through singing, or even simply enjoying a song together.
Music therapy can help those with Alzheimer's be more engaged. Caretakers may find that music helps those with Alzheimer's make more connections with their world. Many seniors become enlivened when music is played, and find they can better communicate afterwards, even if they have trouble with verbal communication. Active participation in music therapy, such as singing or playing an instrument, also allows seniors to engage with their caretakers as they participate together.
Music therapy can create an environment for reminiscing. With all of the combined benefits of music therapy, your relative may find themselves in the proper state for reminiscing. Feeling at ease, connected, and alert may help with memory recall, specifically for memories or emotions that are deeply ingrained. For example, songs from their young adult years may stir certain memories or bring up emotions associated with these tunes. It's important to note that even if a painful emotion is experienced or relived during these sessions, music therapists are trained to work through these emotions with music.
Things to Keep in Mind
Music therapy has the potential to be incredibly beneficial. However, it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Like any sort of therapy, music therapy may not be right for your relative—or, certain types of music may be more beneficial than others. This is why music therapy must be practiced by a credentialed music therapist who can adjust for these factors and determine how music therapy can be a fit for your relative.
Music therapy might not be an option for you, perhaps because of cost or other circumstances, but there are other options that may be a better fit, such as music listening. While music listening is not the same as music therapy, it can provide some peace and comfort for your loved one.
If you encourage music listening for your loved one, keep in mind that music is a powerful tool for anyone. It is also incredibly personal. Think of all of the memories and emotions we associate with music—specific songs might remind you of a certain event, like your first kiss, your first heartbreak, or a special time with your family. Songs evoke different feelings in everyone, and we each have our own personal tastes in sounds.
Involve your relative in the music selection process as much as possible. Find out their favorite artists, genres, and songs. When using music for calming purposes, unfamiliar peaceful music may be effective, as it's not associated with any specific memory. Be sure to watch your relative's reactions while listening to songs. If they seem distressed, or say they don't like the sound, turn it off and consider a different genre next time.
Music therapy can be a wonderful approach to coping with the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. It can help bring peace, happiness, familiarity, and comfort to those who often feel lost and confused. It can also allow family and friends to reconnect with a loved one on some level, even after these connections appear to be lost.
Music therapists can provide tools for caregivers to use music in their daily routines with their family member. This extends the beneficial effects of music therapy outside of the therapy sessions. And while music listening is far different from music therapy, it can also provide comfort and be a means to relax and feel at peace. Ultimately, for seniors with Alzheimer's, music can be a potential way to reconnect with their world.
If you have further questions regarding music therapy and Alzheimer's disease, don't hesitate to contact a care counselor at the Hebrew Home by RiverSpring Health.