Sep 18, 2023

Music and it’s unintended values in reminiscence therapy

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Music therapy or reminiscence can work well for many people with dementia, acting as a valuable tool in igniting memories. [Source: Shutterstock]

Music, as a central element of this therapy, has the power to stimulate memories, improve mood, facilitate social interaction, and provide a means of communication for those with cognitive impairments. It offers a holistic and enjoyable way to connect with and support individuals as they navigate the challenges of dementia.

I believe it was Plato who said, ‘Music is the medicine of the soul’. Working in aged care over the years, I have witnessed ‘soul medicine’ working in practice. We all know that music and songs can make us happy, sad or nostalgic- and sometimes the same emotions are experienced together.

We all know that classical music can help reduce stress levels by triggering neurotransmitters in the brain to release serotonin and dopamine. These are mood enhancers which increase our happiness levels. Other music can make us euphoric, giving a sense of exhilaration and joy.

Starting with our initial exposure to music in the nursery, growing up, our teenage years to favourite songs shared when in love.

The first dance at their wedding for the bride and groom is the most significant, always remembered with great affection.

I always recall a lady I cared for in Tasmania, let’s call her Grace, who entered the aged care facility with middle-stage dementia and had previously had a very successful career as a music teacher in a prestigious school in Victoria. Originally from the North of England, she had been an accomplished opera singer in the UK before meeting her husband and starting a new life in Australia.

From the moment Grace was awake, her day was centred around singing and music in her mind, from showering, dressing, and throughout the day until bedtime; she had a remarkable recall for the lyrics and melody. Music was her safety net from the disease, which had cruelly taken over her life; Grace would always appear content in her world of music.

The joy she found within songs personal to her was phenomenal, to say the least, especially when someone would join in singing a song; her eyes would light up with sheer joy and pleasure. 

As she glided around the floor, she would recite the lyrics with stunning accuracy, a mechanism to deal with the confusion in her mind. Her husband once told me that when things were not going her way, she would happily burst into song to distract herself from her problems. He believed it was her way of coping and dealing with a situation that would usually give her time to reflect on setbacks that eventually resolved.

Grace had previously performed at many music venues throughout her career back in England. The ultimate accolade was when she appeared at the Royal Albert Hall in London; that was her ultimate achievement and one she never forgot.

Music can help lift spirits and often awaken memories that have lain dormant for years; especially for a person living with dementia, music can be a temporary escape to a happier time. Everyone has varying tastes and preferences in music styles specific to optimising the best outcome. When you think about the association of photographic images and how they can attach the memory to a particular piece of music, they can serve well in accompanying a positive, memorable experience. The most favourable way of creating this skill is by sharing the joy found within the music.

When Grace looked at a picture of her wedding day, she would start singing the signature tune ‘Unforgettable’ by Nat King Cole, the same music they danced to on their first dance together as man and wife. Also, when given the opportunity, she would stand up and enjoy dancing with a caregiver to complete the experience. In Grace’s mind she had been transported back to her wedding day and the dance floor. Listening to her beautiful rendition of the song was enlightening, as was the joy on her face and the twinkle in her eye as she danced and sang the melody. 

I have witnessed some of the positive responses music and film can make; films such as ‘South Pacific’ and ‘The Sound of Music’, especially with the visual aspect, can create an added layer of pleasure for the person.

Music speaks all languages and crosses many cultures and diversity, lifting the spirits and enriching the soul, warming the heart, and helping to deal with loneliness and depression.

Another lady I knew would always tell me that music such as Puccini and Rachmaninov would lull her into closing her eyes and dreaming of floating amongst the stars. She would say all her troubles would drift away as she felt transported on a magic carpet into the heavenly sound of romantic melodies. Listening to music before going to sleep would always put a smile on her face, and she would be ready for the following day with the hope that there would be another day to wake up to.

Any given melody can become someone’s memory, where words fail you in life; music speaks all languages.

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