About three years ago, Anita Newton’s mother Louise Martin, now 97, stopped recognizing her daughter and others who were close to her. She also eventually stopped communicating and no matter what words Anita used, nothing she said seemed to reach that part of her mother’s mind that stored certain memories.
Then one day Newton noticed that when she played the piano at the nursing home where her mother lived in Danville, Virginia, her mother responded. “She wouldn’t pay any attention to anything I’d say, but when I played the piano, she would react,” Newton said. Her mother would sing along to the songs, able to recall the words, and make hand movements to the music.
She’d sing along with Amazing Grace and other hymns as well as other old songs to which she knew the words, Newton said, explaining that before she’d start playing, she’d notice that her mother’s “head would be down and her hands in her lap.” But once the music started, her mother became responsive and her mood might also become more positive.
Now that her mother is older, she can no longer sing along to the music, but “she still gets her hands moving with the music,” according to Newton, and it can “still snap her out of a mood.” It’s also a way for the two to feel connected, as communicating verbal is no longer possible.
And according to a study conducted in Finland in 2015, this can still have some positive benefits, even for those in late stages of dementia.
The study, which was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, found that singing is beneficial for working memory, executive function, and orientation, especially in persons with mild dementia or those who are less than 80-years old. But for persons who were older or suffering more advanced stages of dementia, the study concluded that music listening still had cognitive benefits.
The research also showed that both singing and listening to music were also effective in alleviating depression, especially for those with milder dementia.
While music therapy can be used with patients of all ages, many memory care facilities, nursing homes, senior rehab centers and other facilities for seniors use memory care to soothe and calm elderly residents when they are agitated, and to help them with cognitive issues. But any kind of exposure to music seems to have some benefits.
Dr. Teppo Särkämö at University of Helsinki, who led the 2015 study, commented: “Our findings suggest that musical leisure activities could be easily applied and widely used in dementia care and rehabilitation. Especially stimulating and engaging activities, such as singing, seem to be very promising for maintaining memory functioning in the early stages of dementia.”
Newton said the nursing home where her mother lives not only has a music therapy program, primarily for younger seniors to promote memory recall, but also offers live music by area singers and musicians, and has several pianos which residents or visitors can play. Newton plays at the home on an informal basis about twice a month, and says it’s amazing to see how much the residents enjoy it.
One of her favorite things to do with her mother on her visits now is to attach a Bluetooth speaker to her mom’s wheelchair and wheel her through the hallways with peppy and upbeat music playing through the speakers from Pandora on her smartphone.
Other residents greet her in the hallway, and for some that she knows well, she goes into their rooms. “The response I get from them is great and most of the time I’ll dance with them in their wheelchairs.”
“At all levels, whether they’re able to understand a lot of things or not, they all seem to enjoy the music,” she said. “Music seems to be one of the last things to go in their minds.”