MUSIC THERAPY: Using music can help both those living with dementia, their carers and family members.
MUSIC THERAPY: Using music can help both those living with dementia, their carers and family members. SilviaJansen

Music used to stimulate wellbeing and connection

MUSIC can act as a positive behavioural change tool when used in the right way.

It can connect people to the present through the past, acting to calm or stimulate those living with dementia, depression and anxiety.

Professor Felicity Baker, head of music therapy at the University of Melbourne, and her team are using the pilot Homeside training program to show family carers how they can use music in a targeted way.

"We know one of the most distressing things around caring for someone with dementia is when they stop recognising you," she said. "Music can stimulate a stronger connection to the here and now, and to the past. There is a greater chance they will recognise the person that they are sharing these musical experiences with."

The program is not just about turning on the radio or putting a favourite CD and walking away.

"It's about using music for three things," she said. "One is to manage the symptoms of dementia such as agitation and disorientation and the aggression that people with dementia can sometimes display when they get confused. Two is to help the carer to cope better by using music for their wellbeing. The third aspect is around supporting the maintenance of a meaningful relationship between the carer and the person living with dementia."

Another aspect of the project is providing information for carers on how to choose what to read and how to read to a person with dementia to achieve a meaningful connection.

During the running of the pilot program, the researchers will also collect health economic data to determine the impact of both the carer and the person living with dementia. "We will look at how much it will save the carer and how much money will it save society by keeping people better managed in their homes through these interventions," Professor Baker said.

In the meantime, she notes that music can have either stimulate or calm a person, so carers using this type of therapy need to tune in to responses and adapt what they play and when they play the music.

"Don't assume that what worked yesterday will work today," Professor Baker said. "People respond to music in different ways depending on how they are at that moment."

It may be that where a person living with dementia is agitated, the pace of singing needs to be modified to help reduce the anxiety of the aroused person, for example.

"My first suggestion is the carer explores the music that is meaningful to that person that they are caring for, not play what they like," she said. "And not just have it playing in the background, but use it in a meaningful way.

"It's about taking the time to share that experience and after the piece of music has played, ask the person if it reminds them of something, and encourage them to connect with the memories that are associated with that piece of music.

"We want the music to stimulate auto-biographical recall so that they are remembering things from their past which are mostly pleasurable and as a result become more animated."

Study volunteers

Professor Baker is looking for carers of people with dementia, who live in Brisbane, the Gold Coast and Melbourne, to volunteer for the Homeside global research project which is being run across five countries.

Her team will study how home carers use music in a targeted way to manage dementia symptoms, for their own wellbeing and supporting a meaningful relationship between the carer and the person living with dementia.

To volunteer, email or phone (03) 8344 4449.