Dementia, Alzheimer’s, and Music Therapy: Singing for the Brain Improves Relations and Mood

Music therapy involves using music to try and produce a psychological impact on an individual by improving mood, reducing stress, or regulating emotion. For many people listening to music can produce strong emotional responses, especially if they personally connect to the lyrics of a song.  A song can also trigger a memory for some people.  Hence, the efficacy of using music as a therapy tool for patients with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia is being explored. It has been reported that music related interaction between care providers and Alzheimer’s patients has resulted in an improved relationship between the individuals.1

The group based music classes for dementia patients and their care provider were reported as providing an opportunity for a shared experience and improved relations between the care provider and patient.2 The program also provided a sense of community that fostered feelings of social inclusion and support, as well as an acceptance of the diagnosis. Patients also experienced positive impacts on their memory, and care providers and patients both reported feeling a lifting of their spirits.

The program for the study was called Singing for the Brain, and was established by the Alzheimer’s Society in 2003. The program integrates social interaction and peer support through engagement and active participation, with an intended outcome of enhancing the relationship between the care provider and Alzheimer’s patient. The classes are conducted in circle format and led by a musician. The classes included a vocal and body warm-up, followed by familiar songs matching a particular theme. The participants were provided with the music and the songs were sung as a group in unison or rounds with harmonies.   Classes sometimes included the use of percussion instruments.  Each class began and ended with a time for socialization and enjoying refreshments.

The study consisted of 10 caregiver and Alzheimer’s patient pairs, for a total of 20 individuals, who were recruited in the East Midlands area of the UK. The population included three mother-daughter pairs and seven husband-wife couples. The husband-wife pairs consisted of 5 men with dementia, cared for by their wife and two women with dementia, cared for by their husband. The participants were interviewed to assess their experience while attending the group sessions, including the possible impact on their communication and relationship between care provider and patient and changes in health and behavior during and following the sessions. The transcripts of the interviews were evaluated to determine themes, of which the following six were identified: social inclusion and support, a shared experience, positive impact on relationships, positive impact on memory, lifting the spirits, and acceptance of the diagnosis. The transcripts revealed that even when many of the activities for daily living were no longer possible for the dementia patients, participating the in the Singing for the Brain program remained achievable and enjoyable. This is important because if a person with dementia experiences apathy, it can lead to deterioration of their relationships. Thus, the positive interaction with music between caregivers and patients with dementia appear to have beneficial effects for both the dementia patient and the care provider.

The program also provided a sense of social support amongst the participants. They reported that the music program allowed them to form bonds with people they could relate to and provided the feeling of a support network. Caregivers often report being socially isolated because of the burden of caring for a patient with dementia, but these programs allowed the care providers to interact with others who were experiencing similar difficulties of daily life. Care providers who have more social interaction tend to report increased overall life satisfaction, but it is often difficult for them to maintain their social life as the burden of care for the dementia patient increases as the disease progresses. In the Singing for the Brain program, the opportunity for the care providers to socialize before and after the program was impactful, because they were able to develop a social network with other care providers who had shared experiences.

The program also allowed for a shared experience between the dementia patient and care provider, which resulted in a positive impact on their relationships. This was particularly noted for the husband and wife pairs. The musical program provided an opportunity for the care provider and dementia patient to communicate on a different level, which was especially important for patient and care provider pairs where communication had deteriorated.

Due to the memory deterioration aspect of dementia, the activity was sometimes forgotten between sessions. Hence, the most beneficial impact was not focused on learning new skills, but rather the intrinsic value of the sessions. Particularly, the care providers reported feeling improved well-being and enhanced ability to care for the dementia patient. Also, while participating in the sessions, participants would sometimes experience memory recall triggered by certain songs or lyrics. This ability to remember was reported as providing a feeling of hope and positivity for the dementia patients.

Overall, group based music therapy programs similar to the Singing for the Brain program may be positively impactful for both dementia patients and the individuals who care for them.

 

  1. Gotell E, Brown S, Eckman SL. Caregiver-assisted music events in psychogeriatric care. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing. 2000; 7: 119–125.
  2. Osman SE, Tischler V, Schneider J. ‘Singing for the Brain’: A qualitative study exploring the health and well-being benefits of singing for people with dementia and their carers. Dementia (London). 2016 Nov; 15(6): 1326–1339.

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