Music soothes agitation, stimulates memory in people with dementia

  • In his 70s, my dad underwent surgery meant to correct worsening issues from a World War II brain injury. Instead of helping prevent dementia, as the surgery was meant to do, it sent him into a severe form of the disease from which he never recovered. There was little left in Dad’s post-surgery life that could bring him real joy. But music could.


    Recently, an online article at the Huffington Post confirmed what I saw with my dad and what has also been frequently documented in other reports. The Post article clearly illustrates that people with dementia respond well to music.


    The article states that, “…after listening to music some [people with dementia] are clearly more calm, in a better mood and more outgoing than before, which improves the quality of life for both the patient and the caregiver…music has been found to help those with dementia retrieve some memories their caregivers had assumed were lost forever.”

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    The use of music has become nearly universal in any senior environment because throughout the decades people who care for elders have seen positive results of using music as therapy. For example, in the PBS documentary “You’re looking at me like I live here and I don’t,” a staff member is shown serenading residents as she strums her guitar. She also encourages residents to sing-along.  The nursing home featured in the documentary routinely plays background music appropriate to the era when most of the residents were young, music Dad would have liked. This is progress.


    An even more innovative approach is used in a program provided by Artists for Alzheimer’s (ARTZ) that uses reminiscence through music and DVDs as a platform. Program coordinator Peggy Cahill said in an AARP interview that she noticed “....something interesting on the feedback forms she received from nursing staff and family members…dementia participants came away with more positive moods than usual and a greater attention span that lasted beyond the theater experience…caregivers reported a reduction of symptoms often associated with Alzheimer's, including anxiety, aggression, apathy and agitation.” 


    The Huffington Post article notes that when people with dementia become actively involved in music they benefit even more than when they passively listen. I can vouch for that.  I remember giving my dad a director’s wand to keep near his lift-chair. When he was feeling well enough, he’d drift into his private world as he used his wand to “direct” the band he was listening to and likely envisioning. At those times, he was totally involved.  


    The ARTZ effort to involve people with Alzheimer’s in music has a similar effect. Memory is often improved, at least for a time, because reminiscing heightens the experience. Even more important than memory, though, from my perspective, is the emotional aspect of the musical experience. It wasn’t often that I experienced a look of joy on my dad’s post-surgery face. Seeing the grandchildren, seeing an old friend, petting an animal – if Dad was awake enough and not in too much pain, these experiences could bring him happiness and even joy. But those were occasions that depended people catching dad at just the right moment.


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    Fortunately, music was consistently at the finger tips of the staff. They could provide Dad with a big band experience by pressing a button on his CD player. Often he’d just sleep through the music. But once in awhile, when he felt well enough, he’d really experience it.  He’d enter the world of Buddy Rich and Jimmy Dorsey and he’d find joy. This special "music sensibility" that had been burned into Dad's brain circuitry over a lifetime became a huge blessing to us.




    Marley, M. (2012, July 2) Using Music to Engage Alzheimer's Patients. Huffington Post. Retrieved from


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Published On: July 05, 2012