Music can be familiar and meaningful for people with dementia even when their everyday world becomes increasingly harder to make sense of. Singing in a group provides a social outlet for women and men living with the condition and their partners (or other family members). Making music can also help people come to terms with the diagnosis and cope with their condition (Osman et al, 2014). In turn, music can provide comfort and help them maintain a sense of self as the condition progresses (Commission on Music and Dementia, 2018).
However, since everyone is an individual, a ‘one fits all’ approach is not always appropriate. Instead, finding out what music a man or woman with dementia enjoys is the basis for developing a personalised approach e.g. whether singing or playing instruments (or both) is preferred, the choice of instruments, developing a personalised playlist. In addition, taking account of the ‘memory bump’ is important - that is, people with dementia retain their clearest musical memories for music heard between the ages of 10 and 30 (Rubin et al, 1998). Music can be used to link the person’s musical preferences with their personal identity, life experiences and significant events and their overall life history (McDermott et al, 2014).
Music can also reach people with dementia when usual care approaches are not working well and the person is struggling to get the attention they need.
Of course, in communal settings such as care homes it is not always easy to cater for individual tastes, as the needs of a group of residents may have to be balanced (McDermott et al, 2014). You can complete this Playlist for Life chart to identify your musical preferences and begin to map your musical identity and see how these link with key memories from your own life.
Making music in a group can enable men and women with dementia to become more communicative and sociable (McDermott et al, 2014). Even just listening to music - as opposed to singing or other forms of making music - can bring emotional and social benefits to the everyday life of a person with dementia (Sarkamo et al, 2013). Although music can give people with dementia a means of expressing themselves when they find talking difficult, ironically, music may also help them to maintain their speech (Commission on Music and Dementia, 2018). Watch the the video below to hear Sally Magnusson explain how music helped her mother stay connected and express herself when conversation became a challenge.
In addition, this case study of Eleanor (a care home resident) shows how the experience of playing instruments and making music helped her to improve her speech (Music for Life, 2016: page 24 of report).
Music can also reach people with dementia when usual care approaches are not working well and the person is struggling to get the attention they need. This case study of Val (another care home resident) illustrates how she enjoyed playing instruments, with this clearly showing in her positive body language such as her smiles and her eye contact with staff (Music for Life, 2016).
It’s important to be aware that some music can be upsetting to hear, particularly if it brings up painful memories. Playlist for Life has practical pointers for avoiding what it calls these ‘red flag songs’.
However, when used thoughtfully and sensitively and informed by insights into the musical identity of the woman or man with dementia, music can enrich life and bring meaning to an increasingly fragile mind.
Further reading and references
Bowel and Bamford (for ILC and Utley Foundation) (2018) ‘What would life be? Without a song or a dance what are we?’ Report from Commission on Music and Dementia.
Music for Life (2016) Music for Life Programme Report: April 2015 – July 2016.
Osman S et al (2014) ‘Singing for the Brain’: A qualitative study exploring the health and well-being
benefits of singing for people with dementia and their carers, Dementia, 15(6) 1326–1339.
Rubin, DC; Rahhal, TA; Poon, LW, (1998) ‘Things learned in early adulthood are remembered best’ Memory & Cognition, 26 (1), pp. 3-19.
Särkämö, T. M; et al., (2014) ‘Cognitive, emotional, and social benefits of regular musical activities in early dementia: randomized controlled study’, The Gerontologist 54(4), pp. 634-650.
Information or support when you or someone else has memory problems or dementia
To find out more about dementia or get information or advice about living with the condition or caring for someone with dementia (with the UK), check out the website of the Alzheimer’s Society: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk
Alternatively, you can ring their ‘National Dementia Helpline’: 0300 222 11 22.
For information about specialist support for people with dementia provided by Admiral Nurses (available in some parts of the UK), check out the website of Dementia UK: https://www.dementiauk.org/
Alternatively, you can ring their ‘Admiral Nurse Dementia Helpline’: 0800 888 6678.
For advice or support if you are caring for someone with dementia, check out the website of Carers UK: https://www.carersuk.org/
Alternatively, you can ring their carers helpline: 0808 808 7777.
Enjoying music when you or someone else has memory problems or dementia
To learn about the work of the organisation Playlist for Life or how to create a music playlist for yourself or someone else with dementia, check out their website: https://www.playlistforlife.org.uk/Default.aspx
Knowing where to access music therapy when you or someone else has memory problems or dementia
To find out if music therapy is available in your area (England only), check out the website of the Nordoff Robbins charity: https://www.nordoff-robbins.org.uk/
Alternatively, if you live in Scotland, check out the following website: https://www.nordoffrobbinsscotland.org.uk/
Knowing where to find Music for Life workshops in residential homes or day centres
To find out about interactive music workshops delivered in some residential homes or day centres by Wigmore Hall, check out their website: https://wigmore-hall.org.uk/learning/music-for-life
Looking for peer engagement or campaigning groups in your area
To find out if there is a peer engagement or campaigning group in your area, check out the website of DEEP, the Dementia Engagement & Empowerment Project: http://dementiavoices.org.uk/
Finding out about the work of the UK Commission on Dementia and Music
To learn about the findings of the UK independent Commission on Dementia and Music, particularly in relation to the value of music interventions for people with dementia, check out their website: http://www.ilcuk.org.uk/index.php/news/news_posts/call_for_written_evidence_for_the_ilc_uk_commission_on_dementia_and_music