The elderly woman had the vacant, detached stare common to Alzheimer’s sufferers. She seemed unreachable; lost inside herself; unable to interact with the nursing home staff in any meaningful way. This is the picture we see as the camera, filming today’s Armchair Travels session, pans across the room. Then Barry Hall begins his magic on the keyboard. Suddenly, she comes to life in a way no one has ever observed before. She begins by gently tapping her fingers to the rhythm and then starts clapping first the beat, then the off-beat; varying her rhythmic response as she engages with the music. The staff are amazed.
When correctly employed in any activity, music can impact positively on quality of life for those living in aged care communities, especially for people living with dementia.
Anecdotal evidence such as this, provides overwhelming support for the use of music as an alternative to pharmaceutical based interventions, for the promotion of wellbeing and happiness in aged care residents. It also supports the research conducted by leading professionals such as Professor Henry Brodaty, whose studies have shown that even the brain affected by Dementia and Alzheimer’s can still respond to happy stimulus through neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, just as a normal healthy brain does.
The part of the brain which stores music is the most resistant to decay, which is why, even in Alzheimer’s sufferers, music has been observed to stimulate the section of brain not effected by the disease, thus acting as a conduit connecting them with their past and happy memories. We know the patient’s memory of this happy experience will not endure, however the chemicals naturally released into the blood stream as a consequence, will have a lasting effect. Many have been observed to have a ‘spring in their step’ which can last for days afterwards.
Under normal circumstances a person can chose to select and repeat experiences that they know trigger these feel good receptors. Alzheimer’s patients though, are only capable of living in the moment and, because of the area of the brain affected, are incapable of seeking and replicating happy experiences on their own. Thus, the onus is on carers to provide the elderly with happy moments, the effect of which, will be the long-lasting production of naturally occurring, calming chemicals, alleviating the necessity to administer sedative drugs which can have negative side effects.
Thus, there is, not only anecdotal evidence, but also a scientific basis for the use of music as a non-pharmaceutical intervention in the aged care sector. Properly administered, age appropriate music-based experiences, as demonstrated in our Musical Armchair Travels training DVD, should therefore be an integral part of care for the elderly, particularly those living with the symptoms of Dementia and Alzheimer’s.