Professor Felicity Baker has seen music carve through the thick fog of an elderly person’s dementia and bring them back to reality, to a world where they can again recognise their children and, in the best cases, even communicate with them.
“Through music activating them, they become more aware of their surroundings and they sometimes start recognising people again,” she says. “It might only be momentarily, but momentarily is better than nothing”.
Using music to lessen the daily despair of dementia has been the major theme of Baker’s research. She is now studying exactly how powerful music therapy can be for people with dementia, whether the effects last, and whether group sing-alongs can work just as well as one-on-one music therapy.
Jogged back into reality with the power of music, dementia patients appear happier and easier to care for, her research has found. Music can even diminish patients’ reliance on drugs.
Baker is leading a 2.4 million euro ($3.9 million) global research trial in Australia, Poland, Germany, Norway and the UK investigating how home-carers can use music to soothe their distressed or aggressive patients with dementia, either by singing to them or playing them recorded music.
The next phase of the research will be to develop an app to help home-carers use music in the daily care of their relatives with dementia.
A music therapy specialist who earned her doctorate at Aalborg University in Denmark, then the leading institution in the field, Baker worked as a music therapy clinician in dementia care and neuro-rehabilitation before returning to academia.
“Music therapy works not only with people who were musicians, or once had a particularly wide understanding of music,” she says. “There are plenty of people out there who respond in a very strong way because music affects them emotionally or its strongly connected with their memories”, she says.
Music therapists work with a concept called the “reminiscence bump”, which is a period in the patient’s life, usually between their late teens and early 30s, when identity is formed, love is found and enduring memories, often associated with music, are laid down.
“So when we work with people with dementia, we always go to that era of music first, whatever music was current in their life at that time”, Baker says.” It helps to connect them and take them back to those earlier times. They really come to life. You can actually see them processing and remembering those times.”