MP3 players music to the ears of dementia carers

Posted on September 20, 2013

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mother and daughter. jpg copy

She sits by the window
in a blue rubber chair
They’ve wiped her lips,
they’ve tied back her hair
Here comes the thunder,
here comes the rain
Danny boy’s calling her
She’s singing again …
(Lyrics Classroom and Kitchens: Mark Seymour and Mushroom Records)

It’s fairly widely known that people living with dementia can be helped by music – but a world-first study has revealed that the benefit of a song or symphony on their MP3 player extends well beyond those who are listening to it.

Research by La Trobe University and Victorian aged-care provider Southern Cross Care (Vic) has found that there is also a very useful outcome for carers and loved ones, helping them cope with the sometimes taxing task of looking after a family member with dementia.

Senior Research Fellow Dr Margaret Winbolt from La Trobe’s Australian Centre for Evidence Based Aged Care, says this is one of a number of findings from a two-year research project involving 50 carers.

While preliminary results of the study were presented late last year at the 22nd Alzheimer’s Conference in Europe, the complete report was launched recently in Melbourne – very fittingly to the sounds of music.

Well-known singer-songwriter and Hunters and Collectors’ front man Mark Seymour, who is also an ambassador for Alzheimer’s Australia (Vic), was not only the keynote speaker, but also movingly sang Classroom and Kitchens, a song he wrote in honour of his mother who has dementia.

Mark Seymour: song in honour of his mother

Mark Seymour: song in honour of his mother

Remarkable results

With increasing rates of dementia as Australia’s community ages, Dr Winbolt says there had been no existing evidence about the extent to which music could be used to support the carers of people living with dementia.

‘The research results were quite remarkable, particularly those that found a significant decrease in carer psychological distress and a major increase in their confidence to handle difficult and frustrating situations that often came up in the day-to-day life of living with someone living with dementia,’ she adds.

The study was backed by Alzheimer’s Australia (Vic), which cites research that music is the last part of the memory to submit to dementia.

Southern Cross Care CEO (Vic) Jan Horsnell says the idea of using MP3 music players to help carers in their role was trialled by her organisation in 2010 with home care clients living with dementia. Their favourite music was downloaded onto MP3 players and carers then used these to help settle loved ones, for example at home or while waiting in a doctor’s surgery.

Dr Winbolt, right, with, from left, SouthernCross Care’s Jan Horsnell, Mark Seymour, and carer and research participant, Jan Young.

Dr Winbolt, right, with (from left)  Southern Cross Care’s Jan Horsnell, Mark Seymour, and carer and research participant, Jan Young.

Lower distress levels

Buoyed by the positive results, Ms Horsnell says her organisation then partnered with La Trobe to formally research the effects that music played on an MP3 had on carers of people living with dementia.

Dr Winbolt says 84 per cent of carers who took part found the MP3 player positive for themselves and their loved ones.

After four weeks there was a significant decrease in the level of psychological distress reported by carers.

They also said they experienced  some respite from their emotionally and physically tiring role when their loved one was listening to music.

The fifty carers taking part in the study kept a diary for a month and reported how the music calmed their loved one and settled some of the more common behaviours often seen in dementia, like wandering and shadowing. Importantly, says Dr Winbolt,  carers noted that listening to the music was an enjoyable pastime for their loved one.

Carer and research participant, Jan Young, says the MP3 player was one of the most effective calming strategy used by her late husband, Graeme.

‘Even when Graeme was in hospital, and could barely talk, what he could say, and what he wanted, was to have music played on the MP3. It was incredible.’

Listen to Mark Seymour’s Classroom and Kitchens