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Locating lost memories: the relationship between dementia and music

By Tracey Yus | 20/08/22

Whether working in care or knowing a loved one living with dementia, have you ever seen their world come alive with the ‘sound of music’? I have worked in care for a relatively short time; however, my passion has soared during my experience working with people living with various types and stages of dementia. Each individual has unique experiences with everything they encounter day-to-day. Each lifestyle is different; each individual has different needs to be fulfilled.

Whether in a care home or other living environment, there is a routine which provides that fulfilment, comfort and physical wellbeing. Much fulfilment comes from friendly and familiar voices that can be ‘music to their ears’. Even environmental sounds can spark various emotions: the clunking of cutlery or crockery or someone shouting across the room in a busy dining area. But this can have a negative impact on their dining experience and spark mood changes, loss of appetite or an inability to socialise and communicate effectively with others.

Sometimes these side effects from negative sounds can be combatted with music, which I find extraordinary. Music locked into their memories is, more often than not, linked to pleasant and treasured memories, whilst harsh environmental sounds can sound painfully similar to memories of conflict, war, violence, or just exacerbate an unsettling feeling due to misunderstanding what is making the noise. So, we need to cut the clatter and pump up the volume with comforts like the classics or themed mealtimes catered to musical taste too. We want to unlock the happiest memories to accompany individuals day-to-day.

“An individual with deteriorating mental capacity and reduced communication can whack out an amazing version of My Way

Music can turn back time: an individual with deteriorating mental capacity and reduced communication can whack out an amazing version of My Way; a group relaxing in the lounge with little social interaction suddenly become their best version of Doris Day with Kay Sera Sera. I can enter a resident’s room singing their favourite musical and their eyes and world lights up. I can sing a greeting in someone’s native language, and they open up and feel understood and comfortable. A certain song can inspire a resident who communicates very little to sing with all confidence, in the way they did in their choir years ago.

So what is it about music and why is it so therapeutic? Experts in dementia (specifically Alzheimer’s disease) believe it to be attached to memory through emotional links and I could not agree more. They are inextricably tied: music can reduce anxiety, de-escalate aggression, change a challenging behaviour to being completely compliant and, above all, heighten the mood of the many throughout the whole day.

What we have to remember is individuals living with dementia still have their memories, feelings and emotions but may not be able to access them on a day-to-day or hour-by-hour basis, so let’s find the key, unlock the door and let those memories come flooding back (if only for a short time). With 'music in the air’, many individuals will be positively impacted, it will improve many aspects of their daily life, such as nutrition and hydration intake, socialising, physical activity and a tune may also meet their spiritual needs.

I feel passionate about improving the overall wellbeing of every individual I encounter, and I hope you will all start to think about the music which motivates you, reminds you of the best times and relaxes you. Can you recognise the connection and feelings you have towards certain sounds?

When you are with someone who is living with dementia (diagnosed or not), think about what type of music they listened to, what was their wedding song, theme tune or karaoke act. See if you can raise their mood, make them smile, laugh or sing along to Bing or Vera Lynn.

Music is a non-invasive treatment for the mind, body and soul. I watch individuals’ eyes light up, hands start clapping and feet begin tapping, I see their world come alive; they smile, hear and echo a melodic voice. Even if only for a short time, I know they retrieve their wonderful memories which are located through music.


Edited by: Roxann Yus

Cover image and in-article images by: Ben Massey

All images taken at Thirlestaine Park Cheltenham.

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