A therapeutic music outreach program is improving the mental health and wellbeing of people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, according to a study from The Australian National University (ANU).

The Music Engagement Program (MEP), initially developed by researchers at ANU, assists people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. 

“It’s different to other music interventions; it’s not me standing in front singing at people, we sing together,” ANU researcher and program facilitator Dr Georgia Pike-Rowney said.  

“This study provided us with evidence of the impact of the music making beyond its entertainment value — something we have always known anecdotally. 

“We now know the program improves wellbeing and depression symptoms.”  

Results of the pilot study, conducted by researchers at the ANU, showed participants’ average depression scores were reduced after joining the program for eight weeks.   

“During the hour-long sessions the residents are encouraged to suggest songs, and we get everyone singing, including staff, family and the research team,” Dr Pike-Rowney said. 

“It’s an opportunity for family members to engage in a positive activity with their loved one, rather than trying to have very difficult conversations with their family member.” 

An anonymous family member, who joined the sessions, told researchers her mother was more coherent and able to have more meaningful conversations. 

“I was able to talk to her about things as though she was just a normal mother, like she didn’t have dementia. You’ve got your mother back…I mean, it might only be for five minutes or something, but you’ve got her back for that amount of time,” she said. 

Unlike other music programs and interventions, it focuses strongly on social interaction and engagement, with residents encouraged to sing and interact, suggesting and leading songs. 

Founded by co-author and former ANU academic, Adjunct Professor Susan West, the MEP has involved thousands of people in the ACT, and been running nationally and internationally for over 20 years.  

“I’ve seen residents completely transformed, we see improved mood, calmness, and reduced aggression,” Dr Pike-Rowney said. 

The first MEP outreach session post lockdown returned on Friday 23 April at Uniting Mirinjani Nursing Home.
Jo Sumner, Leisure and Wellness Co-ordinator at Uniting Mirinjani, said they are delighted the program is able to return.
“The sessions are lots of fun for the residents, they really look forward to the social interaction and engagement. We see outstanding benefits to the residents’ mood – and it is uplifting for family members too,” Ms Sumner said.

The study is published in Evaluation and Program Planning. 

Thumbnail: Dr Georgia Pike-Rowney. Photo: supplied

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