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Music Therapy for Dementia Patients

guitar-1-1425243An elderly Alzheimer’s patient spoke for the first time in years – with the help of music. When Concetta Tomaino, DA, sang an old Yiddish song to him, something about the music grabbed his attention. He began trying to sing the song for himself, and soon after, began talking again.


Just how the brain and body process music remains mysterious. Tomaino, director of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function at Beth Abraham Family of Health Services in New York, says we at least know music is processed on many levels at once.

 “Why it’s so positive is that we process music with almost every part of our brain,” she says. “Music that has personal significance to someone or is connected with historical events is a strong stimulus to engage responses in people, even in late stages of dementia. Even if they’re not necessarily able to tell you what the song is, they are able to be moved and feel the associations.”

The Institute for Music and Neurologic Function was founded on Tomaino’s observations, together with those of noted neurologist and colleague Dr. Oliver Sacks and others, that many people with neurological damage learned to move better, remember more, and even regain speech through listening to and playing music. In numerous clinical studies of older adults with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, familiar and likable music, not medication, has reduced depression; lessened agitation increased sociability, movement, and cognitive ability; and decreased problem behaviors

“[Music therapy] is not going to change the course of the disease,” cautions Suzanne Hanser, PhD, “but it will allow the person to temporarily engage and be much more capable of communicating more clearly.”


Hanser and her more than 3,200 colleagues of the American Music Therapy Association practice two types of music therapy: active and passive. Familiar and, most importantly, likable, music elicits the best responses.


Music therapists work directly with family members, caregivers, and patients to find the best music for a desired goal of dementia therapy, such as to “improve memory,” “lower agitation,” or “improve cognitive skills.” According to Tomaino, music can be used mnemonically to “retune” the brain to remember certain tasks during early stages of Alzheimer’s and dementia. But in later stages, music is most helpful in maintaining motor skills. In all cases, music is known to reduce anxiety and stress while increasing attention, motivation, and focus.

Unlike passive music therapy, or simply listening to live or recorded music, active music therapy uses real instruments, such as drums, harps, harpsichords, or the voice, to engage a patient in play. Tomaino has found that active music therapy can have immediate physical benefits. “Say a person doesn’t use their hands to pick up things very much any more,” she says. “Engage them in a drumming circle for a while, and in the process of hitting the drum they can maintain the strength of holding a fork or glass.”


For all the anecdotal clinical evidence that dementia therapy using music helps people who suffer from Alzheimer’s and dementia maintain quality of life, and despite the medical community’s general regard of likable music as a “good thing,” music therapy still lacks the rigorous statistical evidence that shows it works for everyone. I

It should be emphasized that musical dementia therapy has not been shown to fail in these studies, either. And the good news is that it’s been shown to have little to no patient risk when administered properly by a trained music therapist. Since 1994, Medicare has reimbursed for the treatment, and in specific cases so has Medicaid.

Hanser says the effects on quality of life that music therapists observe in their patients every day are difficult to statistically quantify because each case is unique. “To be most effective, music therapy procedures must be tailored to the individual needs of each person with dementia,” she says. “Each music therapy strategy must also reflect the person’s history, preference, and ability to engage with a certain type of musical experience.”


The American Music Therapy Association maintains a list of board-certified music therapists, and its web site offers informative FAQs and brief articles about music therapy. To find a music therapist near you, contact them at:

American Music Therapy Association
8455 Colesville Road, Suite 1000
Silver Spring, MD 20910
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


About Sacred Heart Villa

The Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ created Sacred Heart Villa (formerly St. Michael Convent) in 2003 with the vision of providing a personal care home for the Sisters and other seniors of southeastern Pennsylvania. The Sisters renovated St. Michael in order to create 35 personal care residential rooms. Sacred Heart Villa officially opened her doors to her first new residents in May 2004, with space for 57 Sisters and 40 other senior residents.  The facility has two residential buildings, a remodeled dining room, a new fireside lounge, library, café and beauty shop. The chapel remains in the middle of the facility for it truly is the Heart of the community. Each new residential room provides an individual with privacy, safety and security in an environment of beauty and grace. Mass is celebrated each day and is open to the public.

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