Disco Isn’t Dead: How Silent Discos Can Be Music Therapy for Dementia Patients

Music Can Having a Healing Effect for Patients of Dementia, Alzheimer's, and Other Cognitive + Brain Conditions

Dementia is a disease that attacks the human mind and makes the sufferer lose control of their behavior and actions, in large part due to the memory loss and difficulty remembering things. And this disease is not only difficult for the patient. Too many Americans have had to suffer watching their loved one go through the difficult stages of dementia. As of today there is no cure for the disease. However, music therapy is showing an ability to help combat the symptoms of early stages of dementia. So if you want to see just how music therapy can be helpful for dementia patients, check out the rest of the article below.

woman with dementia takes a walk thinking about treatment options
Dementia attacks the cognitive function of elderly people which leads to a whole slew of serious symptoms

What Is Dementia?

And What Causes It?

Alzheimer’s Disease is a degenerative brain disease and the most common type of dementia. The issue is that dementia is not a specific disease itself but a group of related symptoms that are caused by different diseases. Alzheimer’s is the most common and It's estimated 6.7 million Americans who are over 65 are now living with Alzheimer's. And that number is expected to double in size to nearly 13 million by the year 2050. In large part due to the baby boomers entering their old age over the next couple of decades.

Since baby boomers are such a large portion of our population it will mean that a large number of people who were once young are now entering old age in numbers of millions of people every year. And since there will be more people aged 65 and older than there were for the previous generation, diseases related to old age are expected to rise across the board simply because there will be so many more old people, and it is inevitable that a greater number of them will get sick.

Besides Alzheimer’s Diseases, dementia can also be caused by strokes, Parkinson’s Disease, severe head injuries, and Pick’s Disease. But no matter the reason for why a person has dementia, they primarily exhibit the same type of symptoms.

These symptoms include memory loss, finding it difficult to concentrate, and finding routine daily tasks harder to accomplish. Struggling to follow a conversation or remember the correct word they are trying to use can also occur, as is being confused about what time it is or where they are currently at. And also sudden and sometimes severe mood changes. These symptoms are incredibly difficult for both the person who suffers from dementia along with their friends, family, and loved-ones who have to see them struggle with these symptoms over time.

And over time the symptoms of dementia progress and get worse and worse. In late stage dementia common symptoms are.

Advanced Memory Problems. The person with dementia may not even recognise close friends and family or even be able to remember where they live or where they are.

Communication Problems. These can be so advanced that some people who suffer from dementia lose the ability to speak all together.

Weight Lose Problems - Many people with dementia lose their appetite, and even when they are hungry they have trouble eating or swallowing. Which leads to an increased risk of choking.

Mobility Issues - Patients with advanced dementia often find it difficult to move around without having some sort of aid. In some instances this can require a wheelchair or even being confined to a bed.

Mental Health Issues - Dementia wreaks havoc on a person’s mind and it can therefore be a catalyst to some serious mental health symptoms like increased aggression towards those around them, symptoms of depression, anxiety, being easily agitated, and sometimes even full on hallucinations.

Incontinence - In the worst stages of dementia the patient will lose control of their bladder, and in some cases, also their bowels.

And I know that the symptoms of dementia are tough to even read about without making you sad. So if somebody you love is suffering from dementia and you are looking for some hopeful news, I actually have some for you today. There is substantial evidence that music therapy can be a powerful tool in helping combat the symptoms of dementia and even silent discos are getting in on the action.

guitar in a music therapy room for dementia patients
Music therapy has been shown to be a powerful tool to help combat the symptoms of dementia!

How Music Therapy Helps With Dementia

How It Improves Memory, Focus, and Cognition

For many years, music therapy has been used to help manage symptoms of dementia. Music can be beneficial for those with dementia for a variety of different reasons. One simple example is that when a person with Alzheimer's is having an agitated or aggressive episode, playing some of their favorite songs can really help calm their mood and cheer them back up. And this has proven to be effective even after verbal communication has become too difficult.

A recent study published in Alzheimer Disease and Associated Disorders found that utilizing a specific form of music therapy techniques helped improve social engagement among people with dementia. And this can be essential because as the symptoms of dementia get worse it is not unusual for the person to become much more withdrawn and introverted. By keeping them engaged with other people you can go a long way to help improve their mood, and even increase their verbal skills by keeping them in practice.

Music therapy is largely accepted to help improve mood and promote concentration. And research on the impact music therapy can have on patients with dementia have been proving to be positive. As Scott Horowitz, LPC, clinical assistant professor at Drexel University puts it:

“Our sensory experiences as human beings are connected with our memories. For people with dementia or other cognitive impairments, often those associations remain even if other elements of their memory are impaired and impacted. You could play a piece of music that holds meaning to them — and that memory is going to be triggered.”

And it’s been shown that the best music to play is from when they were around the age of 7ish until around their mid-20s according to Dr. Bethany Cook (a clinical psychologist and board certified music therapist). She says that foundational memories and songs are locked together in vaults deeper in the mind than dementia is able to penetrate.

And in a review of 8 separate studies the researchers concluded that “music could be a powerful treatment strategy.” It was shown that the intervention with music improves cognitive function in people living with dementia, as well as quality of life after the musical intervention and improvement in long-term symptoms of depression.

And in a recent study the patients with non verbal dementia who were exposed to music therapy were shown to demonstrate more eye contact with their caregivers, interest, focus, and calmness. In short, all forms on nonverbal social behaviors were improved when compared to the control group. It was noted by the researchers that in some ways music therapy offers something that no other treatment can for patients who suffer from dementia.

And I personally think that it is important to note that music therapy offers a non-pharmaceutical treatment option for patients with dementia. While you should always be taking the medicine your doctor prescribes you, it is also just a fact of the world that medications always come with side effects. Music therapy offers a treatment that is free from unpleasant side effects and has been shown to lead to

  • Decreased depression and an improved mood
  • Decreased anxiety and agitation
  • Decreased need for medication
  • Increased alertness and orientation
  • Enhanced cognition and memory recall
  • Improved communication and more meaningful socialization
  • Improved sleep & appetite
  • And even reduced stress for the caregiver

Music therapy has shown itself to be a seriously effective tool in the battle against dementia symptoms. And if you’re wondering just how the treatment works be sure to check out The Unforgettable Power of Music Therapy for Dementia; A Treatment Guide for the Four Most Common Forms of Dementia. It gives you a nice overview of how music therapy is helpful for the 4 most common forms of dementia.

people dancing at a silent disco, wearing yellow headphones providing the music in a quiet room with a light show going on
A silent disco involves everybody listening to the same song, but while they are all wearing headphones!

Unique Ways Music Therapy Can Be Used By Dementia Patients

How Silent Discos Have Become Therapy Centers

In Singapore the caregivers at a care home took their patients out to a disco to dance to songs from their youth as part of an initiative to help combat dementia. Singapore is grappling with an aging population boom similar to the United States that can provide us key clues in the best ways to care for our own aging population.

After seeing the research that music therapy can be helpful for people suffering from dementia they quickly set up silent discos where their elderly population can come and dance under the neon lights to a set of songs from their glory years that is curated by a psychologist. They all wear separate headphones so it’s technically a silent disco. But they were based off and inspired by successful ones being run in nursing homes in the United Kingdom and Australia. And since it was founded in 2019, the program has grown to include over 10 different establishments in Singapore.

And I think this is an incredible idea that is showing real promise in three other countries and I think the US should start implementing similar policies to help combat our growing population that will be battling dementia.

elderly dementia patient smiling as the music coming through her blue over ear headphones brightens her mood
Music therapy for dementia is a real practice with serious benefits for seniors! Image courtesy of Autumn View Gardens.

The more and more I have gotten to write about how music can be a useful tool in medical practice, the more I have come to realize that it is helpful in some way, shape, or form, for just about any illness out there. So I’m not surprised to learn that it has positive impacts on patients suffering from dementia.The results have been pretty positive so I hope it offers you a glimmer of hope. Clearly more research will always need to be done, but I think it’s high time we bring out some silent discos for our own seniors since it's being shown to be so effective everywhere else!

Anthony Stockton
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