How Music Reaches Inside Dementia

By Becky Benishek | Posted on 08.15.2014 | 0 comments
"Put that music back where it belongs!” said Irene, as a visitor to her nursing home tried to borrow her headphones.

What’s happening here? Irene is rocking out to tunes—her tunes, her way—and she doesn’t want to be disturbed. This is something most of us can identify with, yet when you consider that Irene is on the brink of turning 100 and has Alzheimer’s, the story becomes even more remarkable.

Irene Wade is one of 15 residents at the Lasata Care Center in Cedarburg, WI, who are participating in Music & Memory, a person-centered music program for persons with dementia. Introduced at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee earlier in 2014, this national program has spread to facilities across the country and around the globe.

Where persons with dementia won’t always remember their own names, identify faces, or have become nonverbal, music provides a special kind of therapy that reaches past the disease and into their memories, unlocking the person that is still inside. For some, their musical triggers are songs from their youth. For others, it’s a musician that they loved, such as Elvis Presley.

As well, researchers hope that music will have an added effect of reducing expensive drug use. Jung Kwak, a social scientist from UW-Milwaukee, acknowledges that while this is but one step on the path toward providing the best care for persons with dementia, the Music & Memory program “allows us to see the person rather than the patient.”

Whatever the genre, music can “wake” persons at any stage of dementia, manifesting in reactions their loved ones and caregivers may have given up on ever seeing again. Irene, for example, has trouble completing sentences and becomes very agitated. Yet plugged into her iPod, she might start singing “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” as if she were at Carnegie Hall.

How do you incorporate music into your loved one’s or client’s day? What changes have you seen in their mood or behavior?

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