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Music is around us all from a very early age, whether in the form of nursery rhymes or the music our parents danced around the kitchen to. But while music we listen to at an early age may not always shape our own taste as we get older, music is deeply intertwined with memories and can take us back to an exact point in time to relive the sights, sounds, and feelings.

An old man wearing headphones listening to music and dancing.

'In a healthy brain, music is a very good way of reanimating memories. But it is not clear in dementia, when you have a damaged system, whether it would bring back reminiscence and familiarity of the experience, or whether it would actually bring back the details.'

Professor Jason Warren at University College London. 

In whatever way music brings back memories, it is now recognised as a form of therapy to help those living with dementia gain access to memories that they believed had been lost forever. Music accesses many different parts of the brain, so while someone living with dementia may not understand words very well, music could unlock their mind in a totally different way. As well as potentially helping to trigger memories and be a way to have a quality interaction with a loved one, music has many other benefits for those with dementia:

  • Classical music or other types of slow and soft ambient music can be played in the background to reduce stress. This kind of music therapy is a great relaxation technique for those who are living with dementia. 
  • On the other hand, faster and more upbeat music can be used to encourage people with dementia to get moving. For those with dementia, keeping active and having a productive day can be difficult, so using music to help motivate them to move is a great technique. 
  • Having a good old singalong is a great way to boost everyone's spirits, again encouraging people with dementia to get up and sing, dance and have fun with others. 

While there are many benefits to using music as a kind of therapy for those with dementia, it is important to do things to avoid overwhelming people and receiving an adverse response. Trinity Homecare  an in-home care service operating across the south of England  recommends starting the music quietly and slowly increasing the volume, but never too loud as this can be too intense.

It is also important to play the right music for how people are feeling. Different genres work well for different situations, so various songs can be used throughout the day to offer valuable support to someone living with dementia. For example, don't try to play upbeat music to someone who is confused or distressed  instead, try playing some softer classical music to relax and calm them.

Finally, emotions are not controllable  even with music! So, it's important to be prepared that you may not always get a happy response. Music can bring up some pretty powerful emotions, which aren't always positive. Depending on the memories associated with a particular song, it may also make someone with dementia feel sad, angry, or confused. 

Unfortunately, there is no proven 'Top 40' of songs that you can use as dementia therapy. It's completely unique to the individual as each person has different music tastes and different memories associated with songs. Speaking to the person you are supporting to learn more about their likes, interests and past experiences can help guide you.

A big thank you to the team at Trinity Homecare, who guest-wrote this blog post.