How Music Can Bring Your Patients Back to Life

We all love to sing along to our favorite song, but can music play a greater role in the health and well-being of your patients? Music therapy is not a new concept, but recent viral videos have brought extraordinary support for the treatment for use in older adults.

Music for Memory

While listening to music can be relaxing and enjoyable to older adults with dementia, it can also improve their memory, functional ability, quality of life, and socialization.  This video by the Alive Inside Foundation shows an elderly man with Alzheimer’s who seems wholly changed after listening to music.  In the video the man goes from being completely closed off, hunched over in his chair, unable to recognize his daughter, and unable to answer simple questions, to a very different man, sitting up and talking animatedly about his past and his love of music.

While this video is incredibly emotional and moving, is it a fluke or does music indeed affect memory and functional abilities?

When people have Alzheimer’s or dementia, pathways in their brain become damaged and can no longer work.  While some parts of the brain seem to be gone or dead, like short-term memory or language, they may have just lost the connections that allow the person to access them.

Music is one of the only things that stimulates many different parts of the brain at the same time.  Music allows the person with dementia to reconnect those areas and forge new pathways, stimulating regions that have been damaged or lost to the disease.  What results is an “awakening” that happens immediately after listening to music.

The Power of Music

Music does so much more than reawakening the brain for dementia patients.

  • Memory-In a study at UC Irvine, subjects had improved memory scores after listening to classical music.  The findings in this study have been replicated many times, and further studies have shown that when singing has an additive effect – people can remember words and phrases much better if they are sung, rather than spoken.  When people were asked to speak a phrase and sing a phrase, they are much more likely to have success when singing.
  • Quality of Life-Listening and participating in music increases older adults’ perception of overall quality of life.  They also report having better connections and having a feeling of belonging.  Immediately after listening to music people become more animated and can express themselves more easily.
  • Reduced Medication Needs-People with dementia often fall into the feedback loop of becoming agitated, requiring sedatives which makes them more confused, developing delirium, then requiring more sedatives again.  With medication as the first line of defense against agitation, no wonder so many nursing home residents have “sundowning” or delirium on a regular basis.

A Study from the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry demonstrated compelling evidence that music and music therapy can replace many psychoactive medications that are used to treat the symptoms of dementia.  After participating in a music therapy program, residents were able to discontinue the use of these medications and had a marked decrease in behavioral problems.

Music has the power to improve the lives of your patients drastically and to make them easier to manage.

Music for Movement

Another viral video that is been popular in recent years is one showing how a man with Parkinson’s can walk around smoothly and without assistance simply by using the power of music.  The man starts with a difficult, shuffling gait that is so indicative of Parkinson’s, slow and hesitant, relying heavily on his walker.  After playing some music he can glide across the room with ease, eventually abandoning his walker, and even able to dance with his therapist at the end.

Gait disorders in Parkinson’s disease can be devastating – limiting your patient’s independence and increasing their risk of suffering injury from a fall.  Medications have had limited effects on these disorders and may also cause serious side effects such as lightheadedness and drowsiness, further increasing their risk of falling.

While the mechanism is unclear, promising evidence has shown that using music, especially that with a steady rhythmic beat, can help to treat these gait disturbances.  Parkinson’s affects the internal rhythmic timing of gait, making it difficult for the person to plan an execute a step, particularly around changes in flooring or direction.

Basically, the program your brain uses to walk is intact, but the timing information it usually relies on to plan and executes the walking is missing or malfunctioning.  By replacing internal timing with external timing (listening to a beat or music), you can improve the motor-sensory feedback and enhance the gait.

Other studies have taken this research a step further, developing programs that reward patients for making larger and evener steps.  When a patient’s gait slows, or their stride shortens, the music will stop, only to be reactivated with the stride is long enough.

Disco Fever to the Rescue

Finally, the third charming video is about a program that uses a silent dance party to engage patients in a nursing home.  In the video, the participants wear wireless earphones and then dance along with an instructor to disco music.  Staff at the nursing home speak of a man who after participating in a session stood up from his wheelchair and walked back to his room, forgetting that he could not walk.

Studies are underway to understand the mechanism behind this phenomenon, but likely using earphones help to remove distractions that might hold a patient back, encouraging them to participate and become engaged in the therapy.

Music can be a powerful tool for your patients.  As a CNA, you can use the power of music during your daily activities.  Perhaps when doing am care you can play some favorite music to encourage your patients to participate.  Alternatively, playing some strong rhythmic music when ambulating a patient with Parkinson’s might help them go farther, faster, and avoid injury.  Encourage your institution to adopt a music therapy program can go a long way to improving the lives of your patients.