Living with dementia: music and memory


It happens to the best of us. We forget where we put our keys, why we entered a room, what we have planned for the weekend. But for some people, forgetting things is only the start of an array of symptoms that ultimately mean their entire lives will change.

Last year, television program, Sunday Night, featured a medical science story that brought a tear to the eye of anyone watching. It changed the way many of us think about ageing, living with dementia, and gave hope to more than 400,000 Australians who suffer from dementia-related illnesses every day.

The story, set in the USA, centred on a few innovative aged care facilities that are taking a new approach to caring for and treating patients who suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease, or other illnesses that cause dementia symptoms.

Under the watchful eye of health professionals, the facilities are coming together with childcare centres, to foster interaction and play between young and elderly people, to stimulate their patient’s memories, particularly as they relate to motor and communication skills, with some amazing results.

At the time, there were no studies to even start to explain why elderly patients with Alzheimer’s and incoherent speech, suddenly found the words they needed to speak coherently with the excited little children proudly displaying their artwork and story books. But never-the-less, watching it was like witnessing something quite magical.

Alzheimer’s Disease and others like it — those illnesses that result in profound and life-altering dementia symptoms — are a future possibility many of us fear. And while millions of dollars (an additional $200 million in Australia alone) has been committed to ongoing research and ventures aimed at finding treatments and cures, the brain is complex, and we still know so little about how to prevent its decline as we age.

Music and Memory

At PlayRope, we are personally and professionally invested in enhancing the lives of people of all ages through physical and mental stimulation. We regularly explore new products and ranges that not only cater to play needs, but also work to help make life better for people with a variety of challenges or disabilities.

Recently, this idea of play or mental stimulation for the elderly has been one that has fascinated us. Like most Australians, we’ve seen the figures that report dementia as the second leading cause of death of people in our country, and the terrifying projections that those suffering will rise to more than half a million people by 2025.

With this in mind, while we still largely deliver playgrounds and outdoor exercise stations, we’ve been examining just how we might support the elderly and disabled of Australia a little bit more.

According to reports from the USA, it’s not only interaction with children that can enhance the lives of dementia patients. Studies into the link between music and memory are also delivering outstanding outcomes for patients.

The ‘Music and Memory Program’, featured in the 2014 documentary, ‘Alive Inside: a story of music and memory’, is an inspiring example of the exploration being undertaken into treatments for dementia that focus on re-stimulating the brain through various means, including music.

The program featured on ‘Alive Inside’ enables patients to create a playlist of tracks that energise them, they respond positively to, and perhaps mean something to them on a personal level. Playing the tracks to them has had remarkable results, with health professionals reporting patients are ‘awakened’ and sing or move along, often experiencing brief moments of lucidity that allow connection with loved ones.

This idea of music stimulating memories is one quite familiar to most of us, and the reason for the popularity of apps like Shazam. Many of us associate certain songs with specific parts of our lives, and hearing those songs in the here and now, can help us recall experiences of growth and change, and in dementia patients, assists in recalling movement and managing emotion.

The Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge also sees the validity in the link between music and memory, having undertaken a 2015 study into the use of music therapy for dementia patients. It reported positive results including improved symptoms and well-being, and subsequently, it co-hosted a conference completely dedicated to the concept.

The study followed earlier research in 2013 that suggests singing in group music sessions can have a significant and positive impact on cognitive abilities in those people suffering from the symptoms of dementia. The scientists undertaking the study based themselves out of an aged care facility and observed, over a series of months, a control group of patients who only listened to music, while another group of patients took part in regular singing sessions of increasingly familiar songs.

Linda Maquire, lead author of the study said, “Musical aptitude and music appreciation are two of the last remaining abilities in patients with Alzheimer’s Disease.”

A third study undertaken with more than 150 sets of twins showed the twin who played music in their more mature years had a notably decreased likelihood of developing dementia. The study took into account a range of confounding factors and included sets of twins within which one sibling suffered from dementia already.

Music therapy for patients isn’t new, in fact, it is already taught as a four-year degree at some of our own Australian universities. According to, “Pairing music with every day activities, patients can develop a rhythm that helps them to the recall the memory of that activity, improving cognitive ability over time.”

Exercise and Dementia

While music and play are more innovative ideas, for some time, scientists and medical health professionals have suggested living a healthy lifestyle with plenty of exercise, may be one of the key factors in preventing some dementia symptoms. dedicates a large section of its website to exercise and dementia, stating, “Physical exercise is essential for maintaining good blood flow to the brain and may encourage new brain cell growth and survival.”

While there is no conclusive research available yet, initial studies have linked heart disease and stroke with increased risk of developing dementia, and identify exercise (monitored by a health professional) as a means to help decrease the risk of all three. Other studies have also shown that people who exercise seem to experience a slower loss of brain tissue as they age.

Valuable in helping to prevent dementia and prolong brain health, exercise has also been recommended as a means to improve symptoms for those people living with dementia, helping with challenges such as muscle weakness and decline, fine-motor skills, and helping to manage emotion, depression and stress.

In Australia, though it is highly encouraged, few elderly people get the exercise they need to truly stay as healthy and fit as possible. This may be for a number of reasons’ anything from fatigue to a fear or injuring themselves.

Introducing free, outdoor exercise stations in local parks has already helped, but making appropriate equipment available in aged-care facilities, where residents can feel confident and comfortable under the care of a professional may just help us increase the rate of exercise being undertaken by our elderly, and in turn, improve their physical and mental health.

PlayRope is built on the passion, energy and expertise of our people and we pride ourselves on working closely with our clients and the community to deliver high-quality and innovative solutions. If you would like to explore some of the exercise or music equipment we can provide to enhance your community or aged care facility and increase the quality of life of our elderly, please click here or contact one of our friendly team.