How music therapy benefits people with dementia and their caregivers

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New research shows that music therapy can improve social connections between people with dementia and their caregivers. GC Shutter/Getty Images
  • People with dementia may experience memory and communication difficulties.
  • Music is a form of therapy that can be helpful for people with dementia.
  • A new study shows that music therapy interventions can improve social interactions between people with dementia and their caregivers.
  • The results indicate that music therapy can also reduce caregiver distress.

Dementia is a broad category of disorders that affect a person’s ability to remember, reason and communicate with others. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes dementia as an umbrella term for several disorders that affect memory, thinking, and decision-making.

Dementia is often progressive and it can become more difficult for people with dementia to communicate and interact with those around them.

Some areas of difficulty for people with dementia include social engagement and communication. This can put a certain level of strain on their relationships with their caregivers.

But a recent study published in Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders found that using a specific form of music therapy helped improve the social engagement of people with dementia and their caregivers. The intervention also reduced caregiver distress.

Medications and lifestyle interventions can help people with dementia manage their symptoms.

Recent research is also focusing on non-pharmacological interventions like music therapy that may benefit people with dementia.

Music therapy involves using music to improve mood and promote well-being. And research is ongoing on the overall impact of music therapy on people with dementia.

music therapist Scott HorowitzLPC, a licensed professional counselorand assistant clinical professor at Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions, not involved in the study, explained to DTM:

“Our sensory experiences as human beings are tied to our memories. For people with dementia or other cognitive disorders, these associations often persist even if other elements of their memory are altered and impacted. You might play a piece of music that is meaningful to them – and that memory is going to be triggered.

– Scott Horowitz, LPC, assistant clinical professor at Drexel University

Dr Bethany CookPsyD, a clinical psychologist and certified music therapist, not involved in the study, explained how music therapy benefits people with dementia and their loved ones:

“It is important to note that the best music to use is music that the person with dementia listened to and liked when they were [ages] 7ish in the mid-20s,” Cook said DTM.

“These fundamental memories and songs are locked together in deeper vaults on windy mountain roads that dementia doesn’t seem able to crush completely. I saw a person not recognizing their 65-year-old spouse, but when I play his wedding song, this individual turns to his spouse and he recognizes him and dances.

This current study investigated how music therapy could help both people with dementia and their caregivers.

The study recruited people with dementia from two memory care facilities. The interventions also involved the active participation of caregivers.

The researchers used a 12-week intervention called Musical Bridges to Memory (MBM). The intervention included an assessment of people with dementia’s music preferences and baseline assessment data such as sociable behaviors and dementia severity.

Horowitz explained that considering personal preferences is an essential part of music therapy:

“The music that has the most impact is the customers’ favorite music. There is also a lot of subjectivity in the way we experience music. So music that one person finds relaxing can actually activate another person – their memories are attached to the music they have experienced.

The intervention included training for caregivers, 45-minute live concerts and post-concert breakout sessions. Music therapists encouraged interaction during concerts and facilitated follow-up during breakout sessions. The researchers then conducted follow-up assessments using a neuropsychiatric symptom questionnaire, assessing behaviors and obtaining feedback from caregivers.

Among the intervention group, there were better forms of nonverbal social behaviors compared to the control group. For example, participants with dementia demonstrated eye contact with caregivers, interest, concentration, and calmness.

Caregivers further reported decreased levels of stress regarding the symptoms of their loved ones. Caregivers also noted that the program helped them connect with loved ones and improve the quality of their relationships.

Study author and neurologist Dr Borna Bondkarpourassociate professor of neurology at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago, noted highlights of their findings at DTM:

“Our preliminary data shows that music can help [with] improve social engagement between a person with dementia and their loved ones. It can also reduce stress levels in care partners.

The study provides evidence that music intervention is helpful for both people with dementia and their carers. However, the study also had several limitations.

For example, the study could not be blinded or have randomized participants. However, having a control group was helpful in evaluating the results. The control group came from only one of the two memory care facilities, which may have impacted the results.

The study only lasted 12 weeks, so the long-term effects of the intervention were not assessed. The sample size was quite small, so more data is needed before experts can make generalizations.

The study authors note that rating scales more specific to musical bridges to memory may be useful in future research. They also point out that participants with dementia did not have high levels of unsociable behaviors like aggression at baseline. Finally, their study did not assess the success of the intervention based on the cause of participants’ dementia.

Still, Dr. Bonakdapour was enthusiastic about pursuing research in this area. He outlined the following stages of research:

“At this point, we have a 3-year grant through the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to replicate our findings in a larger group of patients. We also need to look at some physiological measures to confirm that this effect has biological (not just psychological) effects on patients and caregivers.

– Dr. Borna Bondkarpour, neurologist, associate professor of neurology at Northwestern Medicine and study author

Based on the overall results, this intervention could benefit both people with dementia and their caregivers, improving wellness outcomes for everyone involved. Music therapy may even become a more central treatment option in the future.

Horowitz noted to MNT:

“As this study shows, music therapy is a very important resource in dementia care and memory care. It should not be seen as complementary or secondary, but as essential and primary in the care of the elderly. It is essential and in some ways offers something that no other treatment can. »

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