Music Therapy for Seniors Can Benefit Even Those With Advanced Dementia

woman providing musical therapy for senior citizens

Have you ever had the experience of hearing an old song and suddenly being transported mentally and emotionally to a specific time in your past? It’s a common experience for many people.

Music is used to celebrate special occasions. To boost morale in difficult times. To soothe babies, teach young children and motivate us during physical workouts. And, increasingly, it’s used as a therapeutic tool for treating a variety of neurological, physiological and mental/behavioral health conditions.

Music as therapy isn’t a new concept. In fact, research suggests that the practice goes back at least as far as Plato’s and Aristotle’s time. Memories associated with music are firmly embedded in our brain. We hold on to music-related memories long after others fade away.

It’s no wonder, then, that music therapy is commonly used to help people who have dementia, including those with Alzheimer’s disease. Music can sometimes “reach” people with dementia when language alone cannot, enabling them to express themselves even after extended stretches of time without verbal communication.

What Is Music Therapy, Exactly?

The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) defines music therapy as:

The clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.

Music interventions include activities such as listening to music, writing and singing songs, playing a musical instrument and exchanging information through music.

Music therapy for seniors, in particular, can be used to:

• Improve communication
• Enhance memory
• Facilitate the expression of feelings
• Manage stress
• Alleviate pain
• Promote wellness
• Encourage social interaction
• Ease mood changes, anxiety and depression
• Increase alertness
• Decrease medication, in some cases
• Improve sleep and appetite

Music Affects the Whole Body

No matter what age we are, listening to music can help calm us down when we’re upset. It can also help fire us up when we’re feeling sluggish or wishy-washy. Think of an emotion, and there’s probably some type of music that can evoke it.

When we listen to music, many changes occur throughout our body. Our blood pressure changes, along with our heart rate and our rate of respiration.

Even our hormone levels change. For instance, listening to music we enjoy can reduce cortisol levels. Cortisol is the hormone that’s predominantly responsible for making us feel stressed. And singing can stimulate the hypothalamus to produce oxytocin, a hormone associated with feelings of happiness.

Music causes other responses in the brain as well, such as the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that creates a sense of pleasure and well-being.

Although research into how the brain processes music is ongoing, neurologists are discovering that the process is more complex — and involves more parts of the brain — than they initially thought.

With respect to music therapy in dementia care, the AMTA offers this:

Musical memory … is stored throughout the brain, which means that it is accessible even in the late stages of memory disorders when only some brain tissue is still capable of functioning normally. … Music therapy cannot reverse the loss of cognitive function, but it can maximize the existing function.

Music Therapy at Penrose Harbor

As one of the premier retirement communities in Washington state, Heron’s Key offers the full continuum of care. This includes assisted living, skilled nursing and a progressive concept in memory care — all at Penrose Harbor.

Many of our activities for seniors involve music, whether it’s an enthusiastic sing-along, a fun-filled karaoke session or an entertainment event featuring live music by a local artist.

Specific to residents in the Lighthouse, our memory care area, each person has an MP3 player and a headset for listening to personalized music selections. If someone starts feeling anxious or stressed, we’ll play music that can help them relax. Conversely, if someone is withdrawn or uncommunicative, listening to familiar, upbeat music can engage them and help them become more responsive.

The iN2L technology we use gives us access to an entire library of music, some of which has been created to ease “sundowning” in residents with dementia. Sundowning is the onset of symptoms such as restlessness, agitation, irritability and confusion as the day draws to a close.

“We also use a lot of rhythm for those in the very late stages of dementia,” said Theresa Broxton, our Resident Services Program Manager. “Music and rhythm are the last memories to leave the brain. Many people don’t know that.”

“If you can’t get someone to dress, or you can’t get them to understand your words, if you start singing to them — even if you’re making up the song, but you’re using rhythm and swaying your body — a lot of times you can get them to participate with you just by bringing in that rhythm and music,” she said.

Theresa frequently sees the positive impact music therapy has on older adults no matter how severe their memory loss may be. She described how one Lighthouse resident, who had been pacing the hallway, began to dance when she heard a familiar tune being played on the iN2L system.

“She came over to me and was singing and clapping. She just came alive,” Theresa recalled. “I started dancing with her, and she just had the biggest smile. It was just really awesome.”

“When you choose music they’re familiar with from their past, it just lights up that part of the brain. That part of the memory is still there. Sometimes it’s hard to tap into, but it’s still there,” she added.

Karaoke in the Kitchen

Karaoke is always a popular activity at Penrose Harbor. We often use it during our Wednesday Kitchen Creations, while we have a group of Lighthouse residents in the kitchen to bake something for the sensory stimulation the aromas provide. The lyrics are up on a large screen so residents can sing along to the music that’s playing.

“It’s a real mood changer,” Theresa said. “They’ll start laughing, and there’s a lot of conversation. They’ll say, ‘Oh, I remember that song!’

“A few might just sit quietly, but you can tell they’re enjoying it from the way they’re moving,” she added.

People with dementia can become isolated, especially in the later stages. Singing familiar music with others in a group setting makes them aware of others, and they often will begin to interact. The music can have a bonding effect.

The Experimental Christmas Choir

The restrictions we had to put in place to keep residents safe during the pandemic made us be more creative in many ways. One of those ways was something we tried with a group of residents we lovingly refer to as the Fabulous Five. These particular residents are at a transition point, where they still have relatively good use of their long-term memory, but they’re experiencing considerable short-term memory issues.

A couple of months before Christmas, we asked them if they’d like to form a choir. They practiced singing Christmas carols twice a week, with the lyrics in front of them to read as they sang.

“They began to remember that they had choir practice,” Theresa said. “They started to remember what they were supposed to do, and they were excited about it. It gave them a real sense of accomplishment.”

When the time rolled around, the group performed in front of the other residents at Penrose Harbor.

“Watching their smiles and what it did to them to be part of this choir was a pretty neat experience,” Theresa remarked.

Music Therapy Tips from Theresa

If you want to try music therapy with a loved one, Theresa suggests taking the following steps to be more successful.

First, be intentional in the type of music you choose. If you’re working with a parent or a spouse, try to play music they enjoyed during a happy time in their life. Maybe that was during their high school years, or during their 20s, when they were starting a family. What was their favorite type of music then? You want the music to be associated with happy memories.

Second, keep headphones handy. This can be helpful if, say, you’re having a family get-together. The extra activity and noise can cause your loved one to start feeling agitated because it’s too much for them process. Or maybe your loved one is anxious about going to the doctor. You can put the headphones on them and play music to block out whatever’s going on around them. The music can help calm them and take them to their “happy place.”

Theresa also encourages people to sing and dance with their loved ones who are experiencing memory loss. She said it doesn’t matter if you sing off-key, or your dance moves aren’t exactly slick. What’s important is triggering joyful memories, and music can do that in powerful ways.

“It’s a big thing,” Theresa said, “and I think it’s really helpful for working with people with dementia.”

Want to Learn More about Penrose Harbor?

Senior living at Heron’s Key includes priority access to the full continuum of care offered at Penrose Harbor. The assisted living, skilled nursing and memory care services at Penrose Harbor are also available to residents throughout the Kitsap Peninsula area.

You’ll find information about all of the services we offer at Penrose Harbor right here on our website, along with video testimonials from residents and their family members. You can also reach us at (877) 770-5126. We’re here to help.