Therapeutic Benefits of Music for Dementia Patients

Music and Dementia

by Wendy Pester~
It makes us snap our fingers and tap our toes. It brings us joy like no other; it opens our hearts and awakens fond memories of days gone by. Or as quoted by Stevie Wonder “Music is a world within itself, with a language we all understand.” A language that helps those suffering with a dementia feel connected.

According to the Alzheimer’s Foundation (, music can spark compelling outcomes in late stages of Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia. Music has proven to be successfully therapeutic and while some use medications to manage behaviors associated with dementia, music has proven in some cases to be a non-pharmaceutical alternative.

Music stimulates positive exchanges and helps to manage the fluctuation in moods that dementia patients endure. Music activities play two key roles for the elderly, especially those suffering with dementia. It helps individuals feel connected and engaged by reaching memories that have been deeply etched in one’s memory banks, and helps to soothe the agitated, anxious patient. Research shows the positive effects of music on dementia patients include a decrease in behaviors as well as enhanced social, emotional and cognitive skills, and further suggests that music plays a significant role in an improved quality of life for both the dementia patient and his or her caregiver.

As the dementia progresses, the patient tends to revert to an earlier time in their memory bank – back to early adulthood, early 20s, 30s and 40s. When we engage a dementia patient with music enjoyed during these early years, they feel connected, calm and are stimulated to interact. Many who have lost their ability to communicate verbally, unable to produce a coherent sentence, have been known to sing a song, from days gone by, without missing a beat.

Those with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia can respond to music even when other means of communication fail to scratch the surface. Alzheimer’s disease will destroy the ability to recall family members, friends or events of one’s life, but surprisingly, a person’s musical retention out lives the damages of the disease. Music has been known to evoke memories for individuals in the advanced stages of dementia, memories that have otherwise been lost to the disease.

When introducing a means of behavior modification for the dementia patient, the more we know about the individual, including their ethnicity, cultural background, hobbies and interests as well as their age, the more successfully we can mitigate the adverse behaviors caused by the dementia. Selecting the right music is crucial to the success of a healing environment.

It is important to choose familiar music that will evoke memories of a time when life was active and happy. Many of us witness our loved ones or patients become aggressive and/or restless at certain times throughout the day. These behaviors may be caused by something as simple as boredom or may be more typically associated with Sundowning, a phase that surfaces in the late afternoon and into the evening. Behaviors may include pacing or wandering, cursing, restlessness, anxiety, crying, paranoia and even hallucinations.

When these types of behaviors start to surface, music can play a huge role in neutralizing the individual’s behaviors before they become uncontrollable. Music used as a calming element has significant benefits, helping the patient feel relaxed, less anxious and aiding in soothing their distress. While I explain to clients the benefits of music as a therapeutic tool, I stress the importance of having CDs of favorite music available, especially in the car, as traveling, even a short trip to the doctor’s office can prove to be a challenge. Uninterrupted music, such as CDs, mp3 players, tape recordings, etc. is preferable to radio.

As the music starts to soothe the individual, and they begin to engage, the interruption of a DJ or commercial may break the calm and trigger the unpleasant behavior it was intended to disarm.

Music can be an extremely effective tool in our ability to learn and remember because it utilizes many areas of the brain including motor, cognitive and emotional centers. Music is used with the aging population to increase or maintain their level of physical, mental, and emotional functioning. The sensory and intellectual stimulation of music can help maintain a person’s quality of life. In those suffering with dementia, music therapy offers an abundance of positive effects, including:

  • An enhanced quality of life
  • Assistance with physical rehabilitation
  • Reduced stress levels
  • Memory enhancement
  • Improvement in communication skills
  • An enhanced ability to express feelings

Music can be used in so many ways and for so many purposes with someone suffering with a dementia. So, remember – get personal, know your patient or loved one, and be creative. Find songs that were special to them and use the magic of music to engage their attention and stimulate their interest. Using music to connect to memories can enhance their life on many levels, improving movement, quality of life, and communication. If you don’t have immediate access to their favorite music, SING, and encourage the individual to join in – you may be pleasantly surprised at their reaction to your singing (even if, like me, you can’t carry a tune). Try it! It works and it’s fun!


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About Wendy Pester

With over 20 years of experience in the healthcare industry, I was fortunate to find my niche in senior care and have flourished as a devoted senior advocate. As a Community Relations Liaison, I have gained considerable experience working with those struggling with dementia and other medical conditions. As a Client Care Manager, I facilitate a smooth transition for clients being discharged from a hospital or rehab setting, working closely with the client’s medical team, family members and support team to ensure a safe, seamless return home. 
I am a Certified Dementia Specialist and a volunteer with the Alzheimer’s Association, facilitating monthly Alzheimer’s Support Groups in South Jersey, and provide one-on-one training and support to families of those struggling with dementia.

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