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Johnny Lydon and wife Nora attend and wins the BMI Icon Award at the BMI Awards at the Dorchester in London in 2013. She has since been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. EMPICS Entertainment

Opinion Music can unlock memories and evoke emotions for people with dementia

Music therapist Lisa Kelly looks at the discussion around the positive benefits of music for people with dementia.

LAST UPDATE | 2 Feb 2023

Tomorrow night, RTÉ’s Late Late Show will be a must-watch for those who follow the Eurovision song contest and Ireland’s entry into it. The Late Late Eurosong 2023 Special will see six acts take the stage to compete to become the country’s choice for the competition this year.

The talented bunch of artists promise to deliver some decent musical offerings, but one that stood out as a somewhat unexpected entry was John Lydon, otherwise known as Johnny Rotten and his band Public Image Limited. The former Sex Pistols frontman will be performing a song he wrote for his wife of nearly 50 years, Nora Forster. She has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2018, and he now cares for her full-time.

Speaking about the entry, Hawaii, Lydon said the song he wrote is as “heart-wrenching” as he can be. Lydon, who was born to parents from Galway and Cork, says being a full-time carer is a “tragedy” that he faces every day. 

Lydon’s entry into the contest and his reasons for it have cast a spotlight on Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. The Alzheimer Society of Ireland estimates that around 64,000 people are living with dementia in Ireland.

Music and its effects on people with dementia have become a focal point for studies in recent years and the research is promising. Here, Lisa Kelly, a music therapist and PhD researcher at the Irish World Academy at the University of Limerick, discusses the latest research on music’s ability to unlock memories in people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia…

IT HAS BEEN well-documented internationally that music has many benefits for people living with dementia. Over the past decade, music initiatives for people with dementia and their family caregivers in Ireland have increased, including The Forget Me Nots Choir and music therapy services in some dementia health services and care homes.

Popular media coverage has highlighted the benefits of music for people with dementia including the 2014 documentary, ‘Alive Inside’, which showcases music’s potential to trigger autobiographical memories and motivate social interaction.

But how is this the case?

Although memory loss is associated with certain types of dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia, music skills can remain. This can include the ability to sing familiar songs and the musical details such as the melody, rhythm or lyrics.

Familiar music has an enormous power to evoke personal emotions and autobiographical memories.

As elegantly summarised by the well-known British neurologist Dr Oliver Sacks: “Music evokes emotion and emotion can bring with it memory… it brings back the feeling of life when nothing else can”.

john and wife John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) with wife Nora Forster (Yui Mok / PA) (Yui Mok / PA) / PA)

Think about it: You are driving along in the car and a specific song starts playing on the radio. Suddenly, your mind is transported back to a particular moment in time, and you reminisce about that memory – you can picture the moment clearly in your mind’s eye – and depending on how strong that memory is, you may even feel the emotions associated with that memory.

Magic of music

This ability to respond to music is often preserved even in the late stages of dementia even when verbal communication has become limited. This is because there is no specific ‘music centre’ in the brain but rather widely distributed neural networks that are shared with general ‘non-musical’ functions such as cognition, motor, and language functions.

Simply put, music can access parts of the brain that may not be damaged until the later stages of dementia.

This remaining ability to engage in music can be a meaningful communication tool to connect the person with dementia when everyday conversations and activities become challenging.

There are many ways that people with dementia can engage with music. This may include listening to a playlist of their preferred songs, attending concerts, participating in a choir or a music group, or engaging with music therapy.

groupofseniorswithdementiasingingtogetherinachoir Shutterstock / Robert Kneschke Shutterstock / Robert Kneschke / Robert Kneschke

Music therapy is an evidence-based profession delivered by a qualified music therapist that uses music to promote, restore or maintain health functioning and well-being. For people with dementia, it may include singing familiar songs, playing musical instruments, creating a life review through music, songwriting and reminiscence activities. Music therapists work both in residential care settings and in the community providing individual, family, and group music therapy sessions.

Research has shown that engaging in music therapy can promote improved quality of life and have a positive effect on cognitive function for people with dementia.

The impact of Covid-19 has also resulted in a number of these offerings being available in an online format as well as in person, which makes them more accessible to people at the later stages of their journey with dementia, those who have reduced mobility, or those who live in a rural area. Music can also help family carers to manage their work, for example creating a relaxing atmosphere in the home or supporting sleep.

Music therapy in Ireland

There is an expanding body of Irish music therapy and dementia research emerging from a team of researchers at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance and the Health Research Institute at the University of Limerick.

The Dementia Research Advisory Team at the Alzheimer Society of Ireland is a group of people living with dementia and carers and supporters who are involved in dementia research as co-researchers. They are Experts by Experience who influence, advise and work with researchers across Ireland. I’m grateful to them for working with me to explore how music and music therapy can benefit people with dementia in Ireland. 

IMG-0409 (1) (1) Dementia Research Advisory Team and Carl Corcoran. Lisa Kelly Lisa Kelly

I was recently awarded a Creative Dissemination Bursary from The Alzheimer Society of Ireland to complete a song writing project about the lived experience of dementia. The funding for this research is being used to record a song called ‘Who Will We Tell?’ written by Dementia Research Advisory Team members Helen Rochford Brennan, Kevin Quaid and Gerry Paley and their supporters Carmel, Helena and Nuala, with guidance from esteemed songwriter Carl Corcoran.

The song explores their experiences of living with dementia and how becoming involved in dementia research has helped them make ‘new connections’. The song will be released in late March and aims to enhance awareness about dementia and challenge the stigma associated with the diagnosis of dementia.

Lisa Kelly is a music therapist and PhD researcher at the Irish World Academy, University of Limerick. Her PhD research involves developing and evaluating telehealth music therapy services for people living with dementia and their family carers in rural Ireland. She was recently awarded a Creative Dissemination Bursary from The Alzheimer Society of Ireland to complete a songwriting project about the lived experience of dementia.

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