Music Australia News

More Successful Than Drugs: Music As An Intervention For Dementia

Graham Strahle
| November 26, 2019

Aged care homes have unfortunately been in the news for all the wrong reasons of late. Substandard practices by some operators and dwindling resources have been to blame, but recently it has come to light that over-reliance on pharmaceutical drugs to treat dementia has become an alarming problem in Australia’s aged care sector. The Aged Care Royal Commission’s Interim Report, handed down at the end of October, identified this as one of the main reasons why the sector has fallen into “shocking tale of neglect”. This report described the widespread practice in aged care facilities of sedating dementia sufferers as “inhumane, abusive and unjustified”.

Just days before the Interim Report was released, a new study had appeared threw up interesting findings on the effectiveness of non-pharmacological interventions in the treatment of dementia, and well done on the ABC for spotting this. Publishing in Annals of Internal Medicine, a Canadian team drew together the findings of 163 investigations and found that music therapy and massage “seemed to be clinically more efficacious” than drug treatment in reducing dementia symptoms such as aggression and agitation.

The study’s lead author Dr Jennifer Watt, a Toronto-based geriatrician, spoke to ABC RN’s Norman Swan, saying “We found that massage therapy or massage therapy combined with music therapy and multidisciplinary care were some of the most effective interventions”.

Asked if cost is a barrier against implementing these interventions because they require bringing in trained staff to run them, Watt said this should not necessarily be the case because they may be less expensive and more efficient than one imagines. “For example, in my practice as a geriatrician, would be that music therapy intervention could be something as simple as getting a resident their own iPod with headphones and having family members choose music genres that they know their loved one enjoyed before they developed such severe dementia,” she said.

Hear the full interview on RN’s Health Report, and see a story on this research by James Bullen for ABC Health & Wellbeing.

Cleary, no-one would be suggesting that music therapy, as a proper clinical intervention, might consist merely of passive listening over headphones; and to be fair Watt is not arguing that. To be effective music therapy, just like any other discipline, needs properly designed programs delivered by trained specialists. And because the Canadian study has established that music therapy is amongst the most effective interventions for treating dementia, it follows that the cost of providing it needs to be built into our health and aged care systems.

In separate news, a research team at the University of Melbourne led by Professor Felicity Baker, Head of Music Therapy, has developed a home-based method for treating people with dementia. Called Homeside, it claims to bring benefits to not only to dementia sufferers but to family members who care for them. The treatment method consists of training family carers in using music to regulate mood and behaviour. They can do this via an app that is downloaded onto a mobile device.

“Dementia is a thief,” Baker said in announcing her research. “We have a responsibility to manage the health of people with dementia and the depression often associated with it without defaulting to medication.”

See more about it in the University of Melbourne’s media release.

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