Music Therapy and Dementia

music therapy and dementia

Music therapy is incredibly versatile. It can be used in different ways throughout the dementia disease progression. There are many ways music therapists work to support the mental health and social needs of their clients. Here are the 5 most common uses of music therapy with dementia.

Social Groups

Moving into long-term care homes is a huge adjustment. It is accompanied by many losses including independence, comforts of home, contact with friends and family, and familiar routines. Music therapy social groups provide opportunities for clients to come together with their peers and share their feelings and experiences. 

Social groups include choirs, bell choirs, and reminiscing groups. Choirs and Bell Choirs give clients the experience of group music making. Studies show that making music in a group has many benefits including: making friends, building confidence, and developing listening and concentration skills. Reminiscing groups are typically themed based and provide structured opportunities to reflect on different topics. These groups include a blend of music-making and discussions.

Music-Making Groups

Engaging in group discussions is not possible for all clients. Music-making groups are highly effective in meeting the needs of these clients by focusing on the non-verbal aspects of music. Singing with or listening to familiar songs, playing percussive instruments, and moving to music are all activities that provide opportunities to experience success and build confidence. 

Many clients retain the ability to sing along with old familiar songs even after their ability to speak falters. Music therapists prioritize supporting the needs of each client. The goal is to ensure that they participate fully and with as much independence as possible.

Sensory Groups

As dementia progresses, many clients lose the ability to participate independently. Sensory groups then become an appropriate way for clients with dementia to engage in a musical environment. In sensory groups, the music therapist guides each client through hands on exploration of stimulating instruments. The focus is on individual moments and interactions with each client in the group.

It is common to question the benefit of music therapy at this stage of dementia. However this is when enjoyment and stimulation become most important. It is a powerful and special experience to interact with someone outside of physical care. Music therapists observe facial expressions and body language very closely to ensure that the clients are enjoying their experience. 

Responsive Behaviour Support

All clients with dementia experience strain on their mental health. Depression and anxiety, isolating behaviours or increased restlessness and agitation are common. Responsive behaviours are when clients have high levels of agitation that can progress to aggression. This is typically the result of confusion and frustration.

Music is the perfect support for responsive behaviours for most clients. When the right song is introduced in the right way, it has the ability to calm the mind and body quickly and without the need for verbal instructions or processing. This music therapy application is one where music therapists highlight their clinical skills in supporting acute mental health needs.

Palliative Care 

The final stage of dementia can involve palliative care support. Music therapists are often referred to a client when they are actively dying. It believed that hearing is the last sense to go when someone is dying. This means the client may not be able to actively engage with their surroundings, but they can still receive the music and its calming effects.

Palliative care can also include family members. It is common for family to hold vigil during the last days or hours of their loved ones life. Music therapists can bring music to the family that allows them to reminisce about their past and create meaningful final memories.

As you can see, there are many different ways music therapy is used in dementia care. Additionally, the introduction of online sessions has increased accessibility to service. There is a way music therapists apply their craft to support clients at any and every stage of their client’s dementia journey.

Heidi Flynn, RP, MTA (Registered Psychotherapist, Certified Music Therapist)