There are many theories as to why human beings evolved to play, listen to, and love music. Some think it was a way males to attract mates or for mothers to sooth children. Others think music has always been the way we communicate oral history or stay awake on guard shifts around the camp fire. One thing’s for sure, scientists have found evidence of musical instruments that are over 40,000 years old. There are specific centers of the brain that are primed to not only respond to music, but stimulate other areas of the brain and body when music is playing.
At all ages and stages of life, we as humans have a developed a profound affinity for music. Babies who have not yet learned to talk will giggle, babble, and dance when listening to their favorite songs. Anyone who has ever had a toddler knows how much little ones’ love to repeat their favorite tunes over and over. As adults, we love to turn on a song that matches our mood after a bad day or amp up a workout with a motivating playlist. And as seniors, music can help us stay in touch with our long and middle term memories, which provide much needed access to parts of the brain that often slow down or shrink with age.
All sorts of cognitive stimulation are crucial to those living with memory care disorders. That’s why many memory care facilities are carefully designed to minimize potential of confusion, to have bright, stimulating colors, or to even evoke familiar settings from residents’ pasts, like old soda shops or mid-century towns. Many who work with dementia and Alzheimer’s patients recommend surrounding those affected with familiar objects—favorite clothes, pillows, photographs, and other personal affects. Even if the senior is having trouble remembering certain details, like who is in the photo, it still has positive associations.
Because dementia and Alzheimer’s can affect language processing, memory, and the ability to handle daily routines, it can be very isolating. In addition, studies have identified self-perception of loneliness and isolation contribute to the buildup of amyloid in the brain, which is linked to dementia, linking to a lack of socialization and stimulation. That’s where music can come in. Because music is quite possibly such a huge part of the human experience because it enhances communication, emotion, and memory, it is also a great way to bridge the social gap that many with memory disorders find between themselves, loved ones, and caregivers. Caregivers of those with dementia often find themselves feeling someone isolated, too. Music can be a point of connection that eases the stress and strain for everyone involved.
Listening to a loved one’s favorite songs can literally make them feel young again, lighting up old memories, feelings, and associations. Listening to music together can also provide talking points that are free from the mundane of daily routines and medication schedules. You can dance together, draw pictures of what the lyrics and sounds make you feel or think of, or chat about the musician, the rhythm, etc. You can even sing along!
Studies and stories from memory care providers have shown that even deeply withdrawn patients can become quite animated when their favorite songs are played, sharing details and opinions about the music when they rarely speak up on any subject. While not everyone is guaranteed to have such a dramatic response, it is amazing to see how music can affect us at all stages, and the way it can bring joy to everyone from the very young to the elderly.