Music and Dementia: A Simple Touch to Show Great Care for People Living with Dementia

Many people who have seen the 2004 film “The Notebook” remember too well the breathtaking and heart-wrenching scenes in the movie, including the one where Allie (who has dementia) astonishingly plays the piano from memory. It may seem impossible, but it certainly happens in real life. Studies have shown that music has a positive effect on people living with dementia or Alzheimer’s. As one of the first senses that we develop in the womb, our auditory system is fully functional at 16 weeks of development, and it is believed that the memories and emotions that are associated with hearing are the last to go.

Music, including songs and singing, can unlock emotions that can lead to memories. Singing or playing music to those living with Dementia can greatly improve their mental and emotional state. Even if they do not recall the song or the memory exactly, the music still triggers the emotion that accompanies the vague memory. Music appreciation and ability need minimal mental processing, as they occur in the motor center of the human mind. With people who have dementia, these are the last abilities that endure as their memory slowly fades.

Note that not all tunes are helpful; in some cases, they can trigger negative emotions that could amplify the stress of the patient. This is why caregivers in memory care facilities are trained to play the right music—the songs or tunes that the patient positively reacts to. Studies show that most patients react well to songs from their younger years (particularly to songs that were popular when they were between the ages 18 to 25). Playing songs they do not know can also be helpful to help them sleep, relax or calm down when agitated.