Music can stimulate the communicative capacities of seniors with dementia, as suggested by a study conducted in a retirement community in Israel and recently published at the Journal of Music Therapy. The researchers aimed to test the common idea of music therapists that music could help patients with middle- to late-stage Alzheimer’s reconnect with memories and become more social.
Researchers asked the six retirement community patients between 65 and 83 years old, with prior experience singing, to attend group music therapy sessions twice a week for a month and listen to music that was popular in Israel between the 1930s and 1950s, since participants were more likely to have listened to and identify with the music during their youth, when their identities were still taking shape.
After listening to the popular music in group, the residents of the study shared their experience with one another and to the researchers. Most of them expressed the feeling that the music inspired them and reported that the music triggered memories. Some of the participants also said to have remembered childhood experiences, usually related to the music that they heard. The results were exacerbated when participants were given the opportunity to sing together with the music being played.
“The idea that they are part of something is very important to people with Alzheimer’s,” explained Ayelet Dassa, the lead researcher of the study, entitled, “The Role of Singing Familiar Songs in Encouraging Conversation Among People with Middle to Late Stage Alzheimer’s Disease.” “They lose their sense of self. Their self esteem is very low. A large part of the conversation was about how they sang as individuals and as a group, and they gave compliments to each other.”
Despite the good results, researchers remembered that there is always the chance that the findings were due to memories stirred by familiar songs rather than the therapeutic effects of music. There are also several variables to take into account, such as a person’s personal attachment to individual pieces of music. However, the researchers considered the results to be positive, since they were able to alleviate some of the isolation and confusion that often accompanies dementia by providing patients with something to identify with.
These results gave the authors confidence that music was actually encouraging social behavior and cohesion. Dassa speculated that the real power of the therapy was in its ability to make residents feel like part of a group.
Data collected by the Music Therapy Association from numerous studies support many of the new study’s conclusions. According to a report from the organization, seniors with dementia can experience a reduction in aggression and other behaviors related to the condition even into the disease’s late stages if they participate in music therapy. The treatment may also lessen depression and isolation, and increase aptitude in recalling and performing music can be used to gauge the cognitive abilities of a person with Alzheimer’s.