The Science Behind the Magic
Silent discos are a great tool to create an immersive musical experience for people with dementia, creating moments of connection and joy like no other. Researchers from the University of British Columbia explored how people with dementia and their caregivers would respond to this kind of intervention in a hospital setting. This 2021 study found that silent discos were perceived as useful, easy to use, and led to positive attitudes in patients and caregivers alike. Using silent disco headphones allowed people to focus on the music while preventing overstimulation from outside noise. Overall, there was an improvement in mood and affect for people with dementia, while caretakers found it easier to build moments of connection (Hung et al., 2021).
The literature suggests that there are three ways to supplement the musical experience to maximize these moments of connection: (1) physical touch, (2) rhythmic engagement, and (3) community engagement. Silent discos are the perfect medium to uniquely cater to all three pillars of engagement to enhance the power music has with dementia as seen below. While coping with the disease can be heartbreaking for people with dementia, caretakers, and families alike, we hope to improve the quality of life and create moments of joy day by day.
Rhythm is one of the preserved skills throughout dementia. Widespread research has shown that being engaged in rhythm is important for people with dementia, as perceiving, listening, and producing rhythm require separate areas of the brain. Thus, engaging with the rhythm of a familiar song can lead to widespread activation of neurons across the brain. Engaging with rhythm can also create an organizing effect on movements, emotions, and thoughts which is crucial to coping with the cognitive changes of dementia (Särkämö et al., 2014; Chen & Pei, 2018; Kontos et al., 2021). By mirroring the rhythm of songs using handheld percussive instruments such as maracas, our silent disco programs create an interactive experience with music.
As we age, vital tools for communication such as seeing and hearing slowly decline. Fortunately, touch has been shown to be an effective way of communicating with older adults who are losing functionality in those other communicative systems. Previous research has shown that simple touch can lead to a decrease in agitation, an increase in stimulation of sensory systems, and an increase in one’s ability to perceive their environment and the people around them (Woods, Craven, & Whitney, 2005; Belgrave, 2009; Götell & Ekman, 2000). As people with dementia often have serious difficulty in communication due to sensory and cognitive decline, we believe that touch can play an important role in amplifying the awakening sensory experience of music.
As communication and motor skills decline with dementia, making connections with loved ones, caretakers, and other residents become increasingly difficult. Research shows that interacting with music in a group setting offers a proven multisensory experience that paves the way for nonverbal communication, which can improve the quality of life for both people with dementia and caregivers (Clare et al., 2020). Listening to music in a group has also been shown to increase social awareness and engagement as well (Woolhouse, Tidhar, & Cross, 2016; Clair, 2022; Chu et al., 2014). A silent disco is the perfect medium to facilitate group engagement as everyone listens to the same music at the same time, maximizing the opportunity for interaction.
Rhythm and Attention Control
Dancing is a common expression of rhythm when listening to music. In this setting, dancing presents an activity that combines movement with rhythmic engagement. Combining motor and auditory activity when engaging in music increases neural plasticity as it strengthens the individual’s attention network. Researchers from Southwestern Oklahoma University and the University of Kansas found that the combination of movement (walking) with rhythmic engagement (either small percussion instrument or singing) led to an improvement in attention function for people with dementia, which is a particular area of difficulty. Our silent discos combine familiar music with maracas to maximize these neuronal connection. Full Study.
Benefits of Musical Engagement
Researchers at the University of Helsinki in Finland looked at the long-term effects of daily musical exposure (listening and singing) to see how these effects might compare to short-term findings. They found that regular musical listening can be beneficial in multiple areas of cognitive functioning, general mood, and episodic memory (memory of past personal experiences) of the people with dementia. They also found that singing enhanced their short-term and working memory in addition to the emotional health of their family members. Our silent discos make meaningful engagement with music easier, encouraging patients to sing along to familiar music. Full Study.
Touch Therapy and Dementia
One type of therapy that is beneficial is therapeutic touch, or touch therapy, which shows an increase in overall relaxation and decrease of stress response. People with dementia often exhibit behavioral symptoms that include an inability to adapt to change, and so researchers at UCLA hypothesized that touch therapy as a stress reducer would reduce some behavioral symptoms of dementia. They found that touch therapy led to a decrease in the behavioral symptoms of restlessness and vocalization, which present two of the major difficulties for people with dementia. Using music as a medium for dancing, holding hands, and engaging with the rhythm in our silent discos can help improve this touch response. Full Study.
Instrumental Touch and Dementia
A study from Florida State University explored how two different types of touch (expressive and instrumental) paired with music would affect individuals with late-stage dementia. Expressive touch is a touch applied in a caring way that is meant to express reassurance while instrumental touch is a touch that is used to aid an individual in completing a musical task like playing an instrument. They found that instrumental touch was more effective in drawing attention and maintaining a state of alertness in the participants. This further supports the idea of engaging people with dementia in activities that use multiple sensory abilities to increase and brain activation in more areas. We incorporate this by aiding residents as they engage in the musical rhythm with maracas. When we notice a resident being inactive and not engaging in the rhythm, we help guide their hands to participate. Full Study.
Silent Discos, Dancing, and Bonding
Researchers from McMaster University and the University of Cambridge wanted to understand how dancing with others using a silent disco can impact our intrapersonal relationships and connections. They found that individuals who are dancing in synchrony with others have an increased ability to recall features and details about those people. Whether it is simply holding a loved one’s hand and moving to the beat of the music or dancing like nobody's watching, silent discos provide a powerful tool for building a connection and bonding with those around us. Full Study.
Group Music Engagement and Depression
As actively engaging with music improves awareness, doing so in a group setting can promote social interaction for people with dementia. Researchers from the Taipei Medical University found that there was reduced depressive moods and behaviors associated with group musical engagement. In addition, over multiple sessions, there was an increase in cognitive function, specifically with short-term memory recall. As people with dementia adapt to their changing environments and thoughts, music allows an avenue for social connection when conversations aren’t. Music is a powerful tool for emotional regulation and handling depression with dementia, and plays a valuable role in our goal of improving quality of life. Full Study.
Familiar Music Improves Engagement
Researchers from the University of Kansas aimed to understand how dancing to music can affect the relationships between caregivers and care-receivers with dementia. In the study, caregivers implemented singing and dancing of familiar music into the regular routine of their care-receivers. They found that engagement with the caregiver was much higher during visits that included this musical intervention. In fact, there were long term effects, as increased engagement carried over into future visits, even if music was not incorporated into it. This is an example of how these simple interventions by the caregiver can have lasting effects on the care-receiver. This supports the idea that silent discos that incorporate both singing and dancing can improve social engagement for all residents. Full Study.