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The power of music

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Student Nursing Times editor Rebecca Hammond reflects on the impact of music therapy

rebecca hammond close up 1

rebecca hammond close up 1

I will always remember the first day I worked on an older people’s ward. I had recently started my new post as a healthcare assistant and while on shift I was asked by one of the nurses to sit with an older gentleman who was on one-to-one observations.

This gentleman had vascular dementia and was incredibly agitated by the fact that he wanted to go home and run away from the nurses, who he thought were trying to harm him. Doing the best I could, I tried to calm him down and assure him that he was safe.

As time passed the gentleman appeared to be calm with the distraction of watching TV. I remember sitting in the corner of his room and completing his care rounding sheet and the gentleman started singing.

I wasn’t sure what song it was, but it sounded like a wartime song. For me the most amazing thing was the massive smile he had on his face. I couldn’t take my eyes off him, his eyes lit up and I could just see how happy singing made him. 

On a personal note, music has always been a massive part of my life and I generally feel I would be lost without it. But since this shift, I have been curious to find what influence music can have on dementia care.

When people listen to music there are an array of physiological changes which occur, including the temporal cortex and motoric areas in the frontal cortex being activated. It has also been reported through research that participation in musical activities, including singing, can improve cognitive function and wellbeing in older people.

Interestingly, music can be used to engage and communicate with an individual who has dementia, even if they are not able respond or speak to other people.

Through playing music that is personal to them – for example, their favourite song or music from their wedding – emotions and memories can be evoked. Behavioural symptoms, including agitation and aggression, are also able to be positively influenced by music.

Music therapy is offered as a non-pharmacological intervention, which may improve neuropsychiatric symptoms and reduce cognitive decline, in individuals with dementia. Research has found that music therapy can shield autobiographical and episodic memories, executive function and psychomotor speed. 

In recent times, we have seen positive steps forward in making music therapy more available to individuals with dementia. Playlist for Life is an app targeted at individuals with dementia and recognises the important part that music can play in someone’s life. It enables individuals and their families to create a playlist of music, which is not only enjoyed by the individual, but held in special memories and in their heart.

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