In the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease, language deteriorates and patients tend to speak less and less. However a small study suggests that using music therapy could help people with middle- to late-stage Alzheimer’s strike up communication.
For the small study, six patients ages 65 to 83 attended group music therapy sessions twice a week for a month. All patients had a history of loving music and being a part of the singing culture. Lead author of the study Ayelet Dassa, a music therapist, selected 24 popular songs in Israel, where the study was conducted, between 1930 and the late 1950s. Many of the songs were part of the foundation of the patients’ adult identity, which was tied to their country and their heritage, she said.
After listening to the music, Dassa found that participants had conversations about the songs and memories the songs triggered. Additionally, participants talked about life during that time and expressed pride for remembering the lyrics to the songs and participating as part of a group. “A large part of the conversation was about how they sang as individuals (and) as a group, and they gave compliments to each other,” Dassa said.
Many were also excited to continue singing. “I instruct caregivers and families to use singing in their daily care,” said Dassa, who has over 20 years of experience as a music therapist. “It helps elicit memories and reduce agitation, and helps reduce the resistance to many activities, like taking a shower, eating (and) refusing to take pills on time.”
However, singing to patients may not always help them, notes Alicia Ann Clair, director of the Music Education and Music Therapy Division at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, who wasn’t part of the study. Although patients will be able to have conversations, they will not be about present day topics. In addition, there is the potential that the song could elicit unhappy memories.
“What we get down to here is caregivers losing all contact and really being desperate for anything with which they can connect with people they love. They go to visit and there’s nothing to do,” she said. “Singing is something you can do.”