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Music Therapy for Dementia Patients: Demonstrating How It Can Help

Experts have known for years that music – particularly music people listened to in their impressionable youth – can comfort and benefit those living with dementia. 

Alive Inside,” a critically-acclaimed documentary, actually shows music helping people with dementia as they listen to tunes from their youth. The title refers to how people with dementia appear to awaken in a sense when they hear familiar music. 

In the movie, an elderly man named Henry sitting slumped in his chair is unable to recognize his daughter when she visits him. Later, he is given an iPod with headphones and seems to wake up or even come alive again as he sings and hums along with joy and enthusiasm. 

“It gives me the feeling of love, of romance. I figure right now, the world needs to come into music, singing. You’ve got beautiful music here,” Henry tells an interviewer. 

Prior to hearing the music, Henry was barely able to answer simple yes or no questions. 

Social worker Dan Cohen and neurologist and author Oliver Sachs, M.D. made the movie. Cohen is the executive director of Music & Memory (www.musicandmemory.org), a nonprofit organization that brings personalized music to the elderly and infirm to improve their quality of life. 

Just as the music helps people living with dementia, it can also benefit stressed caregivers. The key is to use the favorite music of the person who needs dementia care. It might be church hymns, jazz, Frank Sinatra, or even Christmas carols, as long as it stimulates their memories and calms them. Once the person feels better, so does their caregiver who might simply enjoy the music as well, or just gain some respite from care during this time. 

Learn more about the science behind personalized music benefits at the Institute for Music & Neurologic Function (http://musictherapy.imnf.org) or find out about the iPod program at www.musicandmemory.org.