by Sean McFadden –
Alzheimer Society of Lanark Leeds-Grenville
All of us have had lives influenced by music to some degree or another. For some it was a gifted household where everyone shared their talents in music, like singing in a community choir or playing the organ at church. Perhaps our music influences were more focused on a sister singing in the shower or the music in the home simply being played on the family radio in the kitchen. No matter how music came to be part of our lives I think we can all agree that our earliest memories of music were created at a young age, like a mother signing lullabies or a father’s rendition of ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’! As we aged, musical memories focused on the song of a first dance at a wedding, motivational music played at a child’s hockey game to sad memories of music played at a loved ones funeral. It’s clear, everyone’s long-term memories hold music and song!
People living with dementia are no different. They’ve had productive, meaningful lives, just like the rest of us. However dementia ‘takes’. It takes our social skills, it takes our communication skills, and it takes our desire to get involved with life and the lives of those we love. It takes our ability to start and get going on a daily basis, and it takes our short term memories. What it will not ‘take’, that is so infused with emotion, happiness and joy – our music. For people living with dementia you will find, many times, that their long term musical memories are still good and it’s a wonderful thing!
So why isn’t music ‘taken’ when a person lives with dementia? Studies have shown that music is stored in a part of the brain that is largely unaffected by memory loss caused by dementia. A group of Dartmouth College researchers has learned that the brain’s auditory cortex (the music memory centre) is the part of the brain that handles information from your ears. This cortex is located just inside the ear, and is usually one of the last places to be affected by dementia. Research has also shown us that the auditory system of the brain is the first to fully function at 16 weeks, which means that you are musically receptive long before anything else. “So it’s a case of first in, last out when it comes to a dementia-type breakdown of memory.” states professor Paul Robertson, a concert violinist and academic who has studied music in dementia care. This helps us understand that “rhythmic and other well-rehearsed responses (clapping, tapping your toe, dancing) require little to no cognitive or mental processing,” states the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. We didn’t have to learn this! Our ability to appreciate music does not require cognition: it was always there, free to enjoy at any time.
“Since the auditory cortex is usually unaffected, it can actually allow people to tap into the present moment in a way they have little other opportunities to,” states Scott Lundius, education director at the Old Town School of Folk Music. This tapping into the present is an interesting thought. People with dementia largely live in the past, where their long term memories are vibrant and clear. They have very few opportunities, or abilities, to live in the present as dementia progresses. Thus, the logical conclusion to an accessible life in the present is through our music of the past. So what benefits can we hope to gain with this new life in the present?
An article in Alzheimer’s News Today by Wendy Henderson is an excellent source when looking for the benefits to be had for people living with dementia through music. Wendy points out areas where benefits can be found. Music helps to bring back memories and emotions. Everyone has favorite songs that remind them of special times in their lives. Ability to listen to, and enjoy, music is one of the last remaining cognitive skills. When other cognitive skills have declined, the aptitude to appreciate music remains. Music can help Alzheimer’s patients reconnect with their loved ones. Because music can evoke such positive emotions, it can help people share moments of joy with their loved ones.
Singing helps to engage the brain. The right side of the brain is used to listen to music, but to sing along requires the left side of the brain to become engaged. Music can help manage stress and has the ability to lift a person’s mood and make them feel less stressed and agitated. It can be used to set the mood: a fast song can help to raise spirits and make people happy, whereas a slower song can help people to relax and calm down any agitation.
The Alzheimer Society of Lanark Leeds Grenville has several opportunities to get involved. Our groups bring in live music, giving the opportunity to sing along or dance. Our iPods for Memories program caters to an individual’s specific musical taste, we also support several local area musical teas that offer a safe, caring atmosphere to enjoy music. Music is everywhere! Other local agencies promote music programs and almost all churches incorporate music into weekly services.
I once noticed a participant at a musical tea turn to her husband in the middle of “Cheek to Cheek” by Irving Berlin, she lit up and exclaimed “this is what I love”. I think that moment for me is cemented in my long term memory, and I’m lucky to have it. Folks, we are all in this together! Dementia affects us all. It is important to make music available to people we know living with dementia, allowing them the opportunity to enjoy life. So let’s turn on the music and enjoy life. Please drop us a line at the Alzheimer Society and we will help guide and support you as you get involved through music. [email protected], or call 613-264-0307 or 1-800-511-1911.