Judson Haims: Combating dementia helped by recalling memories, emotions through music
Special to The Aspen Times
Dementia, especially in its later stages, can put a wall between those who suffer from the ailment and the outside world.
As cognitive abilities deteriorate, the sufferer usually becomes increasingly confused and agitated. They may lose (or seem to lose) memories, become disoriented and lost, misidentify people, lash out or throw tantrums, or withdraw completely. In extreme cases, they may seem entirely shut off from the world.
One treatment for dementia that has gained more and more attention in recent years is music therapy. Increasingly popular with senior care and memory care experts, music therapy has proven effective at providing emotional engagement for cognitively impaired patients where other treatments fail.
Music most often makes people smile — it’s visceral. It is something everyone can relate to. Music can help evoke memories, emotions and enhance mental performance.
As the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America explains, music requires “little to no cognitive or mental processing.” Auditory and rhythmic responses are controlled by the motor center of the brain, which remains relatively unaffected by Alzheimer’s, even in later stages. Because of this, when a dementia sufferer hears music, they are not confused or disoriented, as they are with other forms of stimulation.
What makes music therapy especially valuable is the emotional responses it activates. Studies have shown that upbeat, up-tempo music improves the mood of dementia patients. Slower, relaxing tunes often have a therapeutic effect, helping to reduce agitation and anger. Since one of the biggest stumbling blocks to caring for seniors with dementia is signs of psychiatric distress and aberrant behavior, tools that assist in mitigating such behaviors are valuable.
Music therapy seems to work best with music that the sufferer already knows — in particular, songs the person learned before the age of 25. If the sufferer is in the early stages of dementia, it can be valuable to ask which songs from their childhood, teenage years or early adulthood they most enjoy. If they have already reached the later stages of the disease, asking those who knew them in their youth or making an educated guess can also be effective.
Perhaps this is why the British Broadcasting Corporation has created the Music Memories website where caregivers who care for loved ones with dementia can develop music customized playlists. (musicmemories.bbcrewind.co.uk)
Worldwide, studies are validating that music therapy assists in alleviating depression, anxiety, hallucinations and mobility problems in patients with cognitive disorders.
It is important when using music therapy to limit overstimulation. It is best to reduce other distractions and to play music that is commercial-free. Commercial interruptions can cause confusion and lead to increased agitation. It also is important not to play the music too loud and to watch carefully how the person reacts. Some songs might prove soothing for one person and upsetting for another. This sometimes happens when a song is tied to an unpleasant emotion or memory, such as a failed relationship or a lost loved one. Read the person’s face for clues as to their mood and try another song if they seem to get distressed.
One of the biggest positives to music therapy is how it can help make in-home senior care more manageable. Combined with other treatment strategies, music therapy can help extend the time that care recipients spend in the comfort of their home — something extremely important for the emotional well-being of persons with brain disorders. As senior care providers, dementia care specialists, and partners of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, Visiting Angels has seen first-hand the difference such therapies can make.
Take the initiative to play music, sing and shake your body with your loved ones. You may be quite surprised of the smile it evokes and the heartfelt emotions it conjures. Music is a brilliant way to reach beyond memory impairment and reach the person you love.
Judson Haims is the owner of Visiting Angels Home Care in Aspen, Basalt, and Carbondale. He is an advocate for our elderly and is available to answer questions. His contact information is http://www.visitingangels.com/comtns, 970-328-5526.