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Music and Relaxation Therapies for Dementia: Fact vs. Fiction

Dementia is a devastating diagnosis, but its occurrence has become somewhat standard in modernity. New studies and research initiatives hold promises of hope, yet a cure remains out of reach. Rather than focusing on the possibility of a cure, it may be more effective to help those with dementia cope with behavioral changes and memory loss through music therapy.

Music therapy is steeped in doubt and suspicion. However, recent analyses of research studies suggest that its benefits may be greater than previously believed. Thus, you need to understand where the myths end and facts begin in using music therapy to improve senior care treatment outcomes for people with dementia.


Myths of Music Therapy

Despite popularity, the effectivity of music for health care issues “is not widely understood,” explains music psychotherapist Maya Benattar. The problem lies in how people perceive effective medical treatment. Essentially, if a person is not getting a medication, some see it as nothing more than hype. Yet, music therapy continues to surpass expectations in dozens of studies, asserts the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Unfortunately, several key myths continue to dilute the information and usefulness of music therapy for dementia.

Myth: It Cures Alzheimer’s Disease (AD)

Some may claim that music therapy is a cure-all for different maladies. Unfortunately, this feeds into public panic and unreal expectations. So, people considering music therapy for friends, those in their care or family members with dementia need to understand that it does not cure the cause of the disorder.

Myth: Music Therapy Is Only for Those With Developmental Disabilities

Like its association with children, music therapy can be helpful to people with virtually any ailment, even on a purely emotional level. This contradicts the misconception that music therapy only helps people with developmental disabilities, and it goes back to the preconception that an illness must be present to treat. Music therapy could be a useful tool in treating those with and at-risk for developing dementia or other cognitive disorders later in life.

Myth: Music Therapy Success Is for People With Music Backgrounds

Being able to connect musical sounds with sheet music or specific pitches is not necessarily required for this therapy to be effective. However, those with a background in music may benefit more from music therapy when hearing loss or impairment is also an issue. Yet, this evidence does not suggest forgoing music therapy either.

Myth: It Only Helps Children

Although music therapy is commonly associated with behavior analysis and modification in children, it has been shown to help adults of any age. Furthermore, there is not a finite time at which music therapy can be termed ineffective. In other words, pregnant mothers have given birth to healthier infants following music therapy, and even those receiving end-of-life care have experienced health benefits.

Myth: Music Therapy Is Not a “Real Therapy”

Therapy through music is not just a fun exercise in staying healthy, it is a real concept that has helped people reconnect to things they may have forgotten. For example, think of your response when you hear your favorite song. Where does the sound take you back to? Does it remind you of a person, place or thing? What message does the song entail? These questions reflect the cognitive-stimulating effects of music therapy, which must not be dismissed on an assumption.


The Facts

A multitude of research has been conducted on the effects of music therapy. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, music therapy can have a significant impact on those with dementia in senior care facilities, ranging from home health to inpatient settings. These benefits include the following:

  • Music therapy may trigger memory recall. As mentioned previously, music therapy innately assists with memory recall. Unfortunately, memory recall in seniors with dementia may be limited due to changes in the ability to process auditory signals, which may be noticeable in the early stages of dementia.
  • Music therapy encourages appropriate behaviors and a happier mood. Seniors receiving music therapy experienced greater improvement in mood in the days following therapy sessions. Furthermore, seniors with known problematic behaviors, such as inappropriate language or aggression, appeared to exhibit fewer symptoms during this time. Moreover, music therapy reduced anxiety, nervousness and depression among those with cancer, explains the U.S. National Library of Medicine. While it may appear unrelated, the change in mood might suggest the use of music therapy among people living with dementia as well.
  • Music therapy may improve motor function. Among seniors living with Parkinson’s or other motor-affecting disorders and co-occurring cognitive decline or dementia, music therapy improved mobility. Now, the exact stimulus of the additional mobility remains a mystery. For example, did dancing lead to more exercise and improved mobility, or did the sounds simply help control tremors associated with Parkinson’s? Further research is needed to clearly identify how exactly music led to improved mobility, but it does show promise.

Key Concerns When Using Music Therapy

Although the overwhelming body of information suggests music therapy’s usefulness in fighting dementia, it is not without a few key considerations. Before creating or implementing any dementia senior care program that uses music therapy, you need to think about the following concerns:

  • Participants may become violent or exhibit unwanted behaviors during sessions when a particular track plays.
  • Depending on the specific care setting, the volume may need adjustment to prevent angering of other residents or seniors.
  • Erratic or “chaotic” rhythms may cause upset and confusion.
  • Music therapy should not be required.
  • Introduce therapy slowly to new participants, beginning with classical or soft music.
  • Sensory processing may be different, so music levels may require tuning for hearing aids or other assistive devices.

The Big Picture

There is a mountain of research behind music therapy, and according to ClinicalTrials.gov, new studies are being developed right now. Until researchers find a cure for dementia, including a way to prevent it before it ever begins, complementary approaches to dementia treatment may be an appropriate source of improvement. Of course, music therapy should never be used as a substitute for effective medicinal approaches, but it may help slow the progression of symptoms.

Unlike some forms of therapy, music does not require a physician’s approval, but it might not hurt to ask before you implement a program. Ultimately, you have a duty to do everything you can to slow the worsening of symptoms, and if an audio system and speaker is all you need to achieve that task, you can make a difference in the lives of seniors in your care.

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