Music Therapy: A Soothing Gem for People With Dementia

Her grandfather was in his late stage of Alzheimer’s, but the moment she would play old Shanghainese tunes, he would hum along, and sometimes, even dance with her. These were the amazing little details that made policy researcher Helen So convinced of the power of music therapy. It allows our elderly loved ones to “live a little”, she firmly believes.

Arts-based therapy is a promising and steadily budding field. According to a research published by Our Hong Kong Foundation, a spate of studies have highlighted the important role it plays in “creating a high-quality social environment where patients are induced to improve their state of mind, hence their quality of life as well.” It employs different art forms such as music, painting or dancing, and helps individuals cope with a mental illness or physical disability, such as dementia. Bound together with cognitive impairment as the commonality, dementia is the umbrella term which includes different types of disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease.

We converse with music therapist Emily Yeung and policy researcher Helen So with a concentration in arts and culture as they help us understand how music therapy works and eases the lives of people with dementia.

1. What is music therapy?

Emily: Music therapy is a research-based form of practice and profession which uses music intentionally to improve people’s well-being. To understand the use of music, we can see it as engaging in activities like singing, playing instruments, and composing music in a therapeutic relationship. Therapy can be understood as the therapeutic goals we have in mind through which we would like to improve a person’s well-being in varied aspects, such as physical and motor skills, speech and language ability, and psycho-social wellbeing. For example, with people with depression, we work to enhance their mood, and gradually help with their deep-seated issues through the emotional expression in music.

Helen: Music, like any other form of expressive art gives people a chance to express and release emotions that have been suppressed inside; it is a form of catharsis. 

2. Is there a process you follow when you begin sessions with a new client? What is the tentative duration of the therapy?

Emily: Essentially, we need to understand what their symptoms are. We identify the area they need help in which guides our design of their therapeutic goals. For example, people with dementia may lose their spatial sense and perception of time. One of the aspects of using music clinically is that we can sing to them and the lyrics could be about today’s date, where they are and the address of the care-home that they are living in. So it is a way to anchor them to the here and now. This form of improvised singing helps to reinforce their memory.

Helen: There’s no one formula to it. It is person-centred. From my understanding and the research I’ve conducted, each person is treated as a separate case, starting from zero, because what lies at the crux of music therapy is also the building of mutual relationships and shared mutual respect. We use music as a bridge to connect with the person on a deeper, and non-verbal level.

There is no fixed duration. I would understand it as bringing about a progressive change during the course of the therapy.

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3. How does music therapy emotionally aid people with dementia?

Emily: I believe music has a unique power of its own. When we play the elderly’s favourite music or familiar songs, it evokes memories, and especially the emotions behind those memories. This reconnection is very significant in our work with older patients and with patients with dementia who experience a decline in their memories and communication skills. This emotional connection makes them feel that someone understands them without having to use a conventional language to convey that.

Older people may sometimes feel lonely. When they play improvised live music together in the session, music is a way to provide social support to them, so that they can feel that they still have connection with other people. It is a non-verbal sense of communication they share which bounds them together. They tend to feel happier and more connected with each other.

4. We understand that antipsychotic drugs are used for people with dementia. How do drugs and music therapy coexist in this case?

Helen:  Sedative drugs have side effects such as feeling moody and depressed. A lot of music therapists would therefore agree that music therapy intervention does not only help with dementia, but also helps to alleviate the side effects that arise out of taking those drugs. 

Emily: Music therapy can be understood as a complementary form of intervention working together with drugs. The essence of this therapy is that it helps the patients to connect with their inner emotions. It relieves some sense of loneliness and engages them on an interpersonal level so that they can communicate more easily. I think these social and communicative aspects are those that drugs cannot achieve. When they feel agitated, they find kindness in the music which helps them to gradually calm down. It soothes them. 

Let our professional caregivers assist you with activities of daily living and re-introduce music into the lives of your elderly loved ones. Together, we can help them regain their voice and make a meaningful connection with your family.

About the Experts

Emily Yeung is a registered music therapist with five years of experience in the field. She was trained in music therapy in the UK at the University of Roehampton and also holds a bachelor’s degree in Arts (music) from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She is qualified with Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and the British Association For Music Therapy. She provides music therapy services in various organisations such as schools, elderly homes, and special schools along with assessment, plans and reports.

Helen So is a policy researcher specialising in the field of Arts Innovation at Our Hong Kong Foundation, and co-authored Hong Kong’s first policy advocacy paper that acknowledges and calls attention to the inclusive, non-discriminatory, and preventative agency of arts in Hong Kong, with recommendations for a more concerted government effort in making arts a solution for health and wellbeing. Helen holds a Master of Studies (MSt) in Musicology & Ethnomusicology at St. Catherine’s College, University of Oxford, and a Bachelor of Music (BMus) at King’s College London, UK.