Trials show power of music to combat dementia

For the cynical among you, music therapy has come a long way since your primary school teacher invited everyone in your class to grab a percussion instrument (or clap if you were too slow to get hold of one of the few available) and start up a murderous cacophony purporting to accompany the limp strains of London’s Burning, haltingly played by the half dozen recorder prodigies.

Even now, some fifty years later, I can’t hear a recorder without my stomach tightening and my teeth starting to grind.

Proper music therapy, though, is a very professional business.

It requires two year post graduate masters study before you can register with the Health and Care Professional Council and be allowed to call yourself a ‘Music Therapist’ and start to practice.

The training includes applied psychoanalysis, psychodynamics, developmental and humanistic disciplines, neuroscience and verbal as well as non-verbal communication techniques.

The therapist is, in every sense of the phrase, a health professional; trained to see diagnostic indicators in the patients’ reaction to musical stimuli.

Despite this, the fundamental methodology doesn’t really differ from the tambourine and cowbell banging of your childhood insofar as the therapists use well-known, repetitive, musical phrases (such as ‘My Bonnie') and encourage the patient to ‘express themselves’ in accompanying the tune.

Prior to this latest study, by researchers from the Department of Music and the Performing Arts and Postgraduate Medical Institute of Anglia Ruskin University, most of the relatively sparse analysis of the impact of Musical Therapy in dementia had focused on group therapy.

This study looked exclusively at the effect of one to one therapy by arranging one weekly, half hour, session over a period of five months to each of 16 subjects selected from two Methodist Care Homes in the Derby area.

The recruited patients were all aged over 40 and residents in the Homes with a diagnosis of dementia that included at least two neuropsychiatric dementia symptoms but no other significant health problems.

Every session was videoed and presented back to the relevant care staff from a group of 10 selected across the two sites to give them an insight into the patient’s response and progress.

Therapists were also able to show the carers a variety of techniques used in the sessions to prevent triggers of the patient’s dementia symptoms and to minimise their impact when they did appear.

The results at the end of the five month programme showed a marked improvement in the patients’ symptoms (as measured using established neuropsychiatric scores) and their overall well-being (measured using the clinical standard Dementia Care Mapping scores).

A control group of similar patients receiving no musical therapy showed a steady decline on both measures over the same period.

The sessions were equally successful in improving the confidence and ability of the care workers in dealing with the patients outside of the formal therapy.

Each carer reported feeling more confident in their response and options in dealing with the dementia symptoms of patients when they presented.

The researchers now want to conduct a wider study to confirm these findings on a wider scale.

Whether it is a testament to the healing power of music, or simply demonstrates that the music provided a convenient platform for more personal care and therefore a greater understanding of individual needs, is debatable.

Either way, if success is to be measured in outcomes, this does seem to suggest itself as a useful  tool in the treatment of dementia sufferers.



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