Dementia Patients Awaken with Music Therapy

Every Monday morning, a group of spousal caregivers meet to share, compare and vent about the challenges of caring for someone with a progressive dementia. One husband, Joe, talks about his wife emptying the dishwasher and putting things away in the wrong place and how he tries to locate his cooking utensils. Joe also complains about losing friends who don’t know how to act toward his wife, Flo, as her social skills diminish.

With a proud smile, Joe also speaks about his wife’s line-dancing skills and how music transforms her from someone who can’t to someone who can. The music and dancing helps them feel connected, accepted and successful rather than shunned and avoided. In those moments, Joe is proud of his wife and Flo is transformed.


For caregivers to people with memory disorders, one of the most difficult things to accept is that there is no cure that will return loved ones to who they were prior to the disease. However, research has shown music therapy for dementia is remarkably successful. Numerous studies show that listening to music can “awaken” someone with cognitive impairment, stimulating emotional responses. The structure of the brain links music with long-term memory.

Hearing music they loved when they were younger, patients might tap their feet or move their arms to the beat. People who have been noncommunicative sometimes sing an entire song by a favorite singer from earlier days. Every dementia patient responds to music differently because the emotions they felt are unique them. And the effects last beyond the final note: For a while after the music ends, patients can recall vivid memories.

Music therapy for dementia is good for patients and their caregivers. A caregiver who has not seen a loved one express joy in a long time can see that person smile again. Furthermore, research shows that music can help decrease agitation, which can reduce anxiety, depression and insomnia medications. Most importantly, the patient can experience a sense of living again.

Tips for Caregivers

There are a few ways caregivers can try music therapy with a loved one:

  • Play background music or attend live performances. iPods and headsets are priceless for people with cognitive disorders.
  • Join a singalong or give the person with dementia an instrument that doesn’t require training, like a tambourine or percussion instrument. If the patient used to play an instrument, then introduce that instrument again. Even in an impaired state, it can have a miraculous effect.
  • Make sure to arrange appropriate music. Choose music from an era that will bring back favorable memories and avoid music that can recreate moments of sadness.

To learn about our support group for dementia caregivers, call 718-470-8447. For help with problems associated with aging, reach out for North Shore-LIJ geriatric services.

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