Research has linked music with several health benefits for Alzheimer’s patients. It may help with agitation, improve behavioral issues, and provide something familiar and comforting from a patient’s youth. A new study finds that it could also be an important way for caregivers to connect with patients, even after their communication skills have largely faded.
Researchers at Northwestern Medicine recently teamed up with the Institute for Therapy through the Arts (ITA) on a unique musical intervention for dementia patients and their caregivers. In “Musical Bridges to Memory,” as it’s called, a live ensemble plays music from a patient’s youth and allows caregivers and patients to interact playfully with each other as they enjoy the performance together. This is through singing, dancing, and playing simple instruments, while music therapists help them join in. The researchers say this serves as a way for caregivers and patients to connect when conversation isn’t on the table anymore.
Dr. Borna Bonakdarpour, the study’s lead author and Northwestern Medicine neurologist, explains, “Patients were able to connect with partners through music, a connection that was not available to them verbally. The family and friends of people with dementia also are affected by it. It’s painful for them when they can’t connect with a loved one. When language is no longer possible, music gives them a bridge to each other.”
To conduct their study, which was published in the journal Alzheimer Disease and Associated Disorders, researchers recorded memory care home residents and their care partners in the 10 minutes before the musical intervention and the 10 minutes after. During the period after the music, a group conversation was held. There were 12 sessions in all over three months.
After these musical experiences, the researchers found that patients were more socially engaged than they were before. They were making more eye contact, were distracted less, were less agitated, and were in a better mood. On the flip side, residents who didn’t partake in the intervention showed no such changes.
Benefits extended to caregivers, with the team finding that caregivers who took part experienced less depression, anxiety, and agitation, as well. The music also provided interaction for families that hadn’t had much recent communication with their loved one.
Jeffrey Wolfe, leader of the Musical Bridges to Memory program, explains, “As the program progressed, caregivers invited multiple family members. It became a normalizing experience for the whole family. All could relate to their loved one despite their degree of dementia.”
With a three-year grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, ITA and Northwestern will now be conducting the same research on a larger group to further understand this intervention’s benefits.