Since the day we were born and possibly even before, our mothers sang to us. Catchy little tunes like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and You Are My Sunshine followed through our growing years by age-appropriate songs that we clapped, danced and sang along to with family and friends. As we grow older, hearing certain songs sparks nostalgic feelings as we are transported back in time to the exact moments those songs first meant something to us.
Music. A universal language that transcends culture, race and religion, and also, research shows, weaves its way through the seemingly insurmountable barriers of memory loss in those who suffer dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Those who have loved ones suffering from dementia know how hard it is to watch the mental deterioration that the disease causes. Your mother may forget not just your name, but who you are. Your father is unable to feed or groom himself because he cannot remember how. Your grandmother may lose years of memories regarding who and where she is. Your grandfather does not speak because he does not remember words he has spoken all his life. Those with severe dementia forget what happened not only in years past, but yesterday, and even five minutes ago. Often, they repeat words and questions, become lost in their own homes and suspicious or scared of loved ones they cannot remember. In turn, they become frustrated, agitated and detached from their surroundings. Some require round-the-clock care because they cannot cook, clean, or remember to take medication or go to the bathroom. People with severe dementia are unable to interact with anyone on the simplest terms, which is not only hard for them, but crushing to their families and friends.
Dementia affects parts of the brain that allow one to perform and remember many basic aspects of life. However, studies show there is one area in the brain, the medial prefrontal cortex, not affected by dementia until perhaps its very late stages. It is this area of the brain that governs our emotions and other sensory abilities. This part of the brain recognizes music, remembers melodies and songs, and recalls feelings those songs caused…even if those feelings were invoked long ago. This finding was helpful in moving the use of music to the forefront of activities of those suffering dementia.
Studies have shown that, during participation in activities involving music, dementia patients remember words to songs of their pasts and sing along, when moments before they could not speak a complete sentence. Some break into broad smiles of remembrance and even move with the beat. Others remember and begin speaking of events that happened within the time period of that song. Caregivers notice that music soothes agitated patients and makes them more receptive to getting dressed, eating or brushing their teeth.