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Music Therapy for Senile Dementia

by - Dr. T V Sairam

Music therapy holds a promise for many of those who are affected by age-related disorders. It is being recommended as an effective cure not only in memory loss but also for working with people who have movement disorders, especially Parkinson's.

Research conducted at Beth Abraham Hospital shows that Parkinson's patients regained some ability to organize and perform movements that were lost due to the disease. It was also found that for such results, it is necessary that the music selected for them must evoke a response in each of them. To make them move physically or walk, the rhythm must be powerful and pro-active. While prescribing the music, normally therapists go for such genre, which is familiar to the patients, based on their taste and preference. Normally music therapists study such patients to ascertain their likes and dislikes in music before prescribing an appropriate music dose for them.

However, recent research conducted by by Dr. Giovanni Frisoni and his team at National Centre for Research and Care of Alzheimer's Disease, Bersica would reveal that people suffering from dementia could be an exception to this rule, as they sometimes acquire new and even unexpected tastes – and that too all of a sudden.

As dementia is characterized by loss of reasoning abilities, language skills and memory, no reason could be attributed to this sudden transformation in them. These patients started liking those musical forms which they used to hate when they were young!

A 68-year old lawyer who used to only like classical music in his youth, started developing an 'ear' for pop music, which he used to call as 'mere noise'.

A 73-year old lady, who had developed apathy in her children also started showing interest in pop music, which her grand daughter was learning.

According to Dr Frisoni, this change of behaviour could be due to various reasons. Primarily, could be due to change in one's attitude toward novelty. For those who are above 60, pop music can be considered novel. Secondly certain portion of the brain- in such people- could be damaged affecting their perception in pitch, timbre, rhythm and acquaintance.

Another study by neurologists at the University of California-Los Angeles (1998) reported that dementia can bring out artistic talents in people who never had them before. In that study, it was observed that patients developed artistic talents, including music and drawing, which flourished while the dementia worsened. This indicates that as a part of medical treatment, the dementia-affected can be encouraged to learn or play a musical instrument if necessary with the help of a therapist.
However, in working with people affected by dementia, a caution has to be exercised as certain types of music can cause agitation in them. Music can bring out both positive and negative memories. One should endeavor to play those who bring back positive results in such patients. A close observation by therapists while music is played is, therefore an important requirement in such cases.


Dr T V Sairam, A serving bureaucrat and a writer, is from F/48B, Hari Nagar New Delhi 110064. For any doubts you can contact him at - tvsairam @ gmail. com