Music has a profound impact upon the lives of individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. Music can help these individuals reconnect with familiar moments in their pasts, find and identify themselves within foreign locations and new living conditions, even help with social connection and enjoying moments with others that may otherwise make them anxious or agitated. How might music do this? And what might we learn by accounting for the processes involved? Toward addressing this, we synthesize a scoping review of the literature accounting for ways in which familiar music may help individuals living with dementia and their caregivers to connect .
Research shows that the complicated nature of musical memory is largely spared throughout the neurodegenerative process of Alzheimer’s disease. Musical memory involves the coordinated action of several brain networks including motor, sensory and association areas [2, 3]. The relative preservation of several of these networks underlies the ability of patients with neurodegenerative disease to continue to enjoy music and evoke remote memories, often accompanied by noticeable improvement in affect and demeanor .
Research also shows how familiar music helps individuals living with dementia and their caregivers to connect with one another . A recent scoping review provides a four-step conceptual model accounting for how familiar music may facilitate this connection : 1) music may be delivered either through a therapist or not, with headphones, or active participation; 2) familiar music may trigger memories in persons living with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias; 3) memories of positive experiences can have a positive impact upon an individual’s mood state; 4) shifts in mood can help shift often tense or anxious social atmospheres into joyous exchanges with others and also assist in symptom management that may help to reduce caregiver burden (e.g., allowing for successful bathing and dressing interactions, or administration of medications).
To help an individual living with dementia engage with familiar music, it is important to gather information on the kinds of music they most enjoyed. Clues from an individual’s autobiography may be helpful in ascertaining different era associations with their music preferences. One might interview loved ones, family members, and friends or, by trial and error, if the patient is unable to tell you what they like, play music from time frames in which their thinking would have been intact and observe the effect. These days, access to any musical genre is literally at our fingertips. Tools include YouTube, Spotify, or Apple Music, or perhaps CDs. One can transfer those digital recordings onto an iPod, iPad, or other digital device to use for personalized music delivery. Playlists may be composable in advance to enable better completion of important tasks or just to foster a better mood. If this is intended for individual delivery (i.e., only experienced by the patient), use comfortable headphones (over the ear tend to be more comfortable over longer listening sessions). This process is part of the Music and Memory organization’s toolkit for caregivers to better care for their loved ones . Also, reminiscence is a recommended approach to interacting with people who are struggling to learn new information. Music from an era that is the target of reminiscence may be helpful in this pursuit.
There is a lot of work to be done to better understand how familiar music helps individuals living with dementia and their caregivers to connect with one another. Of particular importance is standardizing intervention designs to validate mechanisms of action and clarify reliability of current study designs. Future research would benefit from establishing common data element standards for the definition and measurement of prosocial behaviors in the Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias populations in and outside of the contexts of musical engagement. This research could help clinicians and extension services to better serve their communities with reliable information, ultimately to reduce caregiver burden-related concerns as the incidence rates of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias continue to rise.