Using Music in Dementia Care, Part 2: Theta Sounds

As we consider how music can improve caregiving, I’d like to introduce you to some music that may be new to you. Ever hear of Theta sounds? This is a kind of electronic music that many artists use to boost their creativity. I discovered — totally by accident — that Theta sounds have a nice effect on my mom, too.

Between the Pond and the Woods

I started listening to this music way back when I founded Liberties Scribblers, a creative writing group in Philadelphia. Several of our writers won prizes for their work including the late Paul Coff, an award winner with Philadelphia Poets magazine; Angel Hogan, winner of several First Person Story Slams; and Tremaine Johnson, another First Person winner. One of the poets I worked with swore that listening to electronic music helped him write better. On his recommendation, I bought a couple of  CD’s that included Theta sounds, which are supposed to help induce a creative mood.

This type of music is wordless and calming. But it also includes unusual sounds like the gong of a clock chime and buzzy notes that you can’t quite figure out. That’s because they are played at different frequencies and are directed toward  different parts of your brain. The science behind this kind of music is complex and I’ll tell you right now: I DON’T UNDERSTAND IT! In fact, I make no claims about what this music can or cannot do for you. What I will say is that I often listen to it before I start to work on a creative piece and if my mother is in the room, the music has a profound effect on her. The CD I use most often is part of the Creative Mind Series, by Dr. Jeffrey Thompson, but I am sure there are others with similar effects.

Here is a basic Wikipedia explanation of music that uses binaural beat stimulation including theta waves. Theta waves are related to states of deep meditation, relaxation, and REM sleep. From Wiki: “Binaural beat stimulation has been used fairly extensively in attempts to induce a variety of states of consciousness, and there has been some work done in regards to the effects of these stimuli on relaxation, focus, attention, and states of consciousness. Studies have shown that with repeated training to distinguish close frequency sounds that a plastic reorganization of the brain occurs for the trained frequencies and is capable of asymmetric hemispheric balancing.”

Did you grasp that? No, neither did I. But when I play this kind of music, my mother enters an incredible dream state that liberates her momentarily from the limitations of her body. She raises her arms and starts to move around as if she’s about to get out of her wheelchair. She laughs out loud and talks like she’s having a conversation with someone I can’t see. Her legs regain locomotion, the hands are expressive, and her garbled conversation is so full of joy. Very few things delight her in this way.

As I write this, two questions occur to me: 1) Would all people with advanced dementia respond in a positive way to this music? Probably not. They don’t all respond well to the same drugs so they may not share this kind of ecstatic reaction to music; and 2) Is there any down side to using this kind of music for stimulation? I haven’t noticed one yet and I’ve been playing this music for Mom for quite a while. It’s very relaxing, and she seems to feel good when she awakes from her music “trance”. I’m sure some medical center must be doing research on the use of theta wave music with dementia patients. If not, they will be soon. Let me know what happens if you try this technique in your house.

Using Music to Enhance Dementia Care, Part 1

We’ve used the healing power of music with my Mom since the start of her disease. It boosted her mood when she was depressed about her dementia diagnosis and calmed her as she struggled with delusions. More than 1.5 million people have seen the video of Henry, an inert nursing home resident, who comes to life when he hears tunes he loves. It’s truly impressive. But the amazing thing about music is its power to solve new problems as dementia evolves.

Between the Pond and the Woods

When movement became difficult for my mom, we used old rock and roll songs like Rock Around the Clock and At the Hop to get her dancing in place and boost her circulation. These days she can’t stand up to dance, but we’ve found that music is still a powerful tool in the management of her care.

For the past six months, my mother’s ability to walk has been impaired by a mysterious wound on her ankle that hasn’t responded to treatment. This month Mom started getting care at a hyperbaric wound center. The new healing process has reduced her pain and made it easier for her to take the few steps needed to get from the wheelchair to her bed. Then one night I discovered that these few steps went more smoothly if we played music while she took them.

It was a simple observation with profound implications. Now, we get her up each evening to walk (very) slowly through the kitchen before we get her ready for bed. If we play jazzy music with a strong beat, she seems to forget all about the mechanics of walking. Her lifelong connection with rhythm and dance helps her move her feet confidently toward her destination. When we guide her carefully and move with the rhythm of the song, she even seems to enjoy walking. In fact, she can go about ten times as far when a favorite tune is playing.

You may not realize the significance of this nightly walk if you’re caring for someone in the early phases of dementia. But if you start using this powerful tool early in the game to help a loved one enhance their mobility, you may be able to employ it to overcome difficult challenges in the future. Find a song they love and make (legal) copies of it. Then you can invoke the power of music when and where it helps most!