Have you ever listened to a piece of music and found that it triggers memories from an earlier part of your life? This common experience lays the groundwork for music therapy sessions for those living with dementia. Recently, the World Health Organization published a major study investigating the health benefits of the arts, including using music. They found that music reduces anxiety and depression, and supports cognition, speech and memory.
United’s unique United Minds service has been using music therapy for several years.
“It offers a wide array of benefits,” said Jimmy Downey, a certified Calgary music therapist. “Music is beneficial for everyone, no matter their stage of dementia. I use several instruments because people react differently to the different tones created by different instruments. Some may not like drums, while others find the repetition soothing, or in the case of the piano, that may be an instrument that inspired specific memories of their home, if their home had a piano, for example. When a resident plays a drum there is an automatic response to the rhythm. But singing is my favourite. Because music impacts a large part of the brain, people with memory loss can recall the words and melodies from early in their lives.”
Jimmy keeps an eye on residents’ reactions to be sure he is reaching them effectively. “If I see someone looking uneasy through their facial expressions or body language, I immediately change my approach.”
His sessions encourage participation, including dancing. “I find live music is particularly effective, and if someone gets up to dance, I will often dance with them.”
He usually begins by performing popular music a resident might have heard on the radio in the 1950s. They might laugh or cry, but the experience creates a bond. “I watch for the social cues and how they are responding and go from there.”
“Music therapy is a great way to connect emotionally with residents who have dementia, as it can be used as an opportunity to reminisce, as well as a way to connect with others socially who may typically be more withdrawn,” said Amy McDonough, United Minds manager. “Musical expression can be used to trigger past memories and feelings and create meaningful moments for those living with dementia. Outside of structured music therapy programs, music can also encourage older adults living with dementia to move and be more physical.”
“I really like to play loud at times,” said Jimmy. “I see people too often play so gently and there is no shift in dynamics. Loud music tends to get the participants singing louder and really getting into the music in a more emotional way.”
Jimmy got started in music therapy after he realized that music had tremendous potential to heal and motivate.
“My Grandfather had Alzheimers, so I was exposed to it early,” said Jimmy. “I went into music therapy thinking that I would work with teens, but it works well with residents who have dementia or an acquired brain injury. I use it to keep muscle memory sharp, and I keep track of which pieces illicit a positive response.
Photos by United Active Living. Videos by Sherana Productions.
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