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Published on August 17, 2018

This can revive memories in dementia patientsThis can revive memories in dementia patients

“Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast. To soften rocks, or bend the knotted oak,” playwright William Congreve wrote in the play, The Mourning Bride in 1697. Modern researchers have now discovered that music can also soothe those suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers at University of Utah Health recently tested whether they could alleviate anxiety in patients with dementia by playing familiar music to them using headphones and a hand-held music device. Anxiety and agitation are two of the most disruptive aspects of living with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease for both patients and caregivers.

After the researchers helped the patients pick meaningful music, they used a functional MRI to record the changes in the brain while the music played. The brain images showed that music helped the areas of the brain known as the salience network, the visual network, the executive network, and the cerebellar and corticocerebellar networks all work with better connectivity. These areas of the brain activate language and memory, according to the study’s authors.

“When you put headphones on dementia patients and play familiar music, they come alive,” Jace King, a graduate student at the Brain Network Lab and lead author of the study, said in a press release. “Music is like an anchor grounding the patient back in reality.”

Music and movement are the last things to go in the brain, according to music therapist Joy Indomenico, MT-BC, who works for the Visiting Nurse Association of Cape Cod.

“It’s almost miraculous what music can do for Alzheimer’s patients and the research about the benefits is there,” she said.

Cape Patients Respond

Twice a month Indomenico goes to each of the two VNA Adult Day Health Centers to do music therapy, and she has seen firsthand how much music helps dementia patients. with the clients there.

“Most of their clients are dementia and Alzheimer’s patients,” she said. “I do live music with them. I play the keyboard and they play percussion instruments that I bring.”

Indomenico always plays songs from their era that they might recognize like Side by Side, Blue Skies, Goodnight Irene and Let Me Call You Sweetheart. Patriotic songs are also popular. She likes to interview caretakers about what songs the clients really enjoy, because often the clients can’t remember the titles of songs.

“Once they hear the songs played, oftentimes they will sing the words to them,” she said. “It’s really amazing to see. Music touches people on so many levels. The Music & Memory program is so wonderful because it individualizes the listening to each patient.”

The reaction by dementia patients to music was also dramatically demonstrated in the 2014 documentary, Alive Inside, about the Music & Memory program. Music & Memory is a non-profit organization that trains elderly care professionals to set up personalized playlists on iPods for their patients. The music helps the patients access the deep memories not lost to dementia. It also helps them converse and socialize in ways they weren’t doing before the familiar music became a part of their daily life.

Patients Drop Medications

It’s also been proven to work. In 2017, researchers from Brown University published a study in The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry that was designed to test the effectiveness of Music & Memory. They compared close to 13,000 residents in long-term care facilities that used Music & Memory with a similar number of residents in facilities that did not.

At the end of the year-long study, the residents who participated in the individualized music program discontinued antipsychotic and antianxiety medications at a noticeably higher rate. The control group’s use of medication either stayed the same or increased. The residents who participated in the music program also exhibited fewer behavioral problems.

Indomenico has used music to help staff and caregivers with clients with behavioral problems. For example, if a client doesn’t want to leave the Adult Day Center when the caregiver arrives, she will play a waltz so a staff person can literally waltz the client out the door. She also sometimes brings her harp to play soothing music during a relaxation time.

Locally, the JML Care Center in Falmouth, Mayflower Place Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in West Yarmouth and Windemere Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Oak Bluffs are certified Music & Memory facilities.