How Can Family Caregivers Work With Music Therapists for Dementia Treatment?

Music therapy is a way of enhancing, improving, and contributing to quality of life, as expert Helen So rightly puts. Read what she and music therapist Emily Yeung have to say to family caregivers who want to incorporate music therapy in their caregiving routine.

The beauty of music therapy lies in its innate ability to share powerful connections with people who struggle to put their thoughts and feelings into words. People with dementia are often heavily medicated to subside their agitated behavioural tendencies, reducing their ability to fulfil emotional and spiritual needs.

Music therapists and family caregivers currently work together to effectively enhance patients’ communication skills and well-being. According to the Elderly Services Director of an elderly home in Hong Kong as interviewed by Our Hong Kong Foundation, music therapy is the most effective choice for dementia patients with decreased verbal abilities, as “through music they are still enabled to achieve catharsis by other modes of sensory stimulation.” 

We chat with professionals Emily Yeung and Helen So who share their insight on how family caregivers can work with music therapists to nurture their relationship with their dementia-diagnosed relatives.

1. What is something caregivers should pay attention to when seeking help from a music therapist?

Emily: During an individual or group session, caregivers may have their own expectations from the patients. To make the best use of the session, they may sometimes overwhelm the patient by providing a lot of instruments and tasks. People with dementia tend to get anxious easily. The caregivers should really take a step back and observe what their patient can do without their assistance. It is about giving them the autonomy to make their own decisions and express themselves independently instead of being offered a lot of things they may not want to do. The important expectation caregivers should set is that they enjoy the session together.

2. How can caregivers work with music therapists to facilitate the treatment?

Emily: Caregivers can provide maximum assistance to us especially during the hands-on work. For example, they usually help in facilitating the patients’ engagement in the sessions if, maybe, they are wheelchair bound. They aid in engaging them with their instruments and providing access to them so that they can play more freely.

We generally make use of the relationship people with dementia share with their family caregivers so that we all can come together to participate as a group or a little community which makes them feel included. Otherwise, oftentimes we collaborate together to discuss the best available treatment for the patient.

Helen: True, the caregiver’s presence does make a lot of difference. The patients may feel more secure and at ease during the session with their presence. They definitely feel reluctant and reserved otherwise, but if a familiar face like a caregiver were present, they would  at least be willing to try with us. After all, it is about providing them with the initial momentum to join in.

As an afterthought, Helen So added that according to her research and past experiences, she found that many caregivers and social workers already use music as a form of intervention. It complements well with physical therapy and medication, and professional healthcare workers use it to emotionally engage with their clients.

“Do not assume that people suffering with dementia are unaware. They know things, and can still feel everything. Our framing of them for what we read on google ranging from them being forgetful, needing extra care, responsibility, and so on, is misleading. They know and feel more than we can imagine.

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About the Experts

Emily Yeung is a registered music therapist with five years 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 the 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.