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An introduction to Music Therapy in Dementia care

Tue 20 Jul 2021 - Dr Ming Hung Hsu

Dr Ming Hung Hsu is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Cambridge Institute for Music Therapy Research and Music Therapy Lead for the national charity MHA. He currently works on the Homeside study funded by Alzheimer’s Society.

“What is music therapy?” This is one of the most frequent questions I hear as a music therapist working in dementia care. Although we hold a protected title, music therapists are still not widely understood as a regulated health professional. In care home settings where I carry out most of my work and research, music has always been used as part of the daily activities. Therefore, it is not straightforward to justify my role in these demanding care settings.

Why is music helpful in dementia care?

Music stimulates our cognitive abilities including attention and memory, and it activates more parts of the brain than do other sensory stimuli. Research also shows that the brain regions dealing with musical memory, the ability to remember the features and content of a piece of music, are relatively preserved in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease. Therefore, singing or listening to familiar songs, playing instruments and attending concerts are all therapeutic activities in terms of promoting cognitive, social and emotional wellbeing.

What is the role of a music therapist in dementia care?

Whilst music activities are beneficial, they differ from music therapy which is a formal psychological treatment where a qualified therapist addresses specific health concerns. In dementia care, one major concern is the management of symptoms such as agitation, apathy, depression and anxiety. These symptoms may often arise from a person’s unmet needs such as untreated pain or environmental sensory overload. Therefore, a therapist’s role is to help identify these needs and possible causes of symptoms in order to advise caregivers on strategies where music can be used to prevent and ameliorate emergent symptoms in everyday life. This is a key aspect currently being tested in the international randomised controlled trial study, Homeside.

How can care homes benefit from having a music therapist?

Through my research, we have developed a music therapy service at MHA that is tailored to enhance the quality of care in care homes. Through individual and group therapy sessions, the therapists monitor and communicate residents’ cognitive function and needs to care home staff. This enhances staff understanding of the triggers and methods of managing symptoms. Therefore, staff can save time, reduce their stress and prevent safeguarding incidences. This communication also increases staff awareness of residents’ needs and remaining abilities. Therefore, staff can individualise their care approach and choose appropriate activities that use music to help residents communicate and exercise their remaining abilities. As staff become more aware of residents’ changing needs, the unnecessary discontinuation or use of medications can be avoided to prevent the exacerbation of residents’ health.

Conclusion & Links

Improving the care for people with dementia is an urgent task. Through identifying tailored music activities for use in daily care, music therapists may play a key role in supporting caregivers to address unmet needs.

MHA and music therapy


Homeside study