According to 2017 data from the Public Health Agency of Canada, dementia affects approximately 7% of people aged 65 and over in Canada.(1) Some of these older adults live in long-term care facilities, while others live in their homes and are assisted on a daily basis by caregivers. Living in a familiar environment allows them to maintain some autonomy, which promotes a higher quality of life and better health, despite the negative effects of the disease. But providing home care to a loved one with dementia is not easy. Caregivers must learn to manage the difficult behaviours of people with dementia. They often experience physical health problems, psychological distress and social isolation.
Over the last 20 years, alternative approaches such as art therapy and music therapy have been offered to older adults with dementia and their caregivers. These approaches focus on the importance of music. Music creates emotions and causes physical effects in people: happy or quiet music lowers the heart rate and reduces stress, for example. Did you know that choir-singing boosts the immune system's hormones while helping to strengthen social ties?
Musical activities are often offered in residential and long-term care centres for seniors with dementia, and their positive impact is well documented. Can older adults with dementia living in their homes also benefit from the positive effects of music?
What research tells us
Researchers have identified 17 studies that demonstrate that music positively influences people's lives by reducing agitation and improving their cognitive abilities and well-being.(2) Music reduces complaints, pain, verbal and physical abuse, and the confusion of agitated older adults with dementia. Studies have also found that music has a positive effect on the memory of older adults with dementia, allowing them to recognize familiar tunes, remember old souvenirs, and can help them play an instrument or perform musical activities.
The impact of music on the social well-being of older adults and their caregivers is not insignificant. Music promotes engagement, support and communication between people. It can relieve some of the burden on caregivers providing care to older adults with dementia. For example, researchers examined whether listening to music, coupled with physical activity or discussion, helped improve caregivers’ moods and reduce caregivers’ distress. The results are clear: although the effects were positive among older adults with dementia, the caregivers’ response was the most positive in terms of relaxation, comfort and happiness.
Studies have shown that listening to music allows older adults with dementia to be calmer, which indirectly helps to reduce caregivers’ levels of stress. Also, group music therapy sessions led by a trained music therapists helped reduce caregivers’ anxiety by allowing them to express and share their feelings.
In the various studies, it has been observed that music has improved the relationship between the caregiver (who is often the spouse) and an older adult with dementia, allowing them to enjoy a common activity that is pleasant, and that they had experienced earlier in their life. It has also improved verbal and non-verbal communication between caregivers and older adults, by promoting reminiscing about shared memories, whether by playing music or singing together to express emotions. Also, music increases self-esteem and decreases caregivers’ anxiety and loneliness.
Let the music play!
Music is a catalyst for human relationships, enabling the creation of strong emotional bonds between people.
Music is a simple and inexpensive strategy whose benefits are very real. To help older adults with dementia, why not allow them to listen to their favourite music, play an instrument, or even form a choir?(3) This is equally beneficial for caregivers. It would be wise, however, not to leave them the task of organizing and directing these musical activities to the caregivers alone, as the perceived benefits may diminish because of the stress and mental burden involved. Professionally-led musical activities are offered in nursing homes and by recreational services of several municipalities. So, let the sound of music brighten up our homes and communities for the well-being of our elders and their caregivers.