Making the case for music becoming mainstream in dementia care

July 30, 2020

Baroness Sally Greengross, Chief Executive ILC-UK

Music has a powerful role to play in bringing people together. While musical styles come and go out of fashion over the generations, the joy of music, singing and dancing is something we all share as humans. The importance of music to our health and wellbeing cannot be overestimated.

One group of people whose health and wellbeing can be improved enormously through listening to music and enjoying the experience is dementia patients. Dementia is a term used to describe conditions which cause memory loss, confusion, mood changes and difficulty with day-to-day tasks.[1] There are over 400 types of dementia, the most common of which is Alzheimer’s disease.  The World Health Organisation estimate that there are currently 50 million people living with dementia globally. Moreover, the number of cases of dementia is expected to triple to 152 million by 2050[2] so this is an extremely urgent situation.

Positive effect

Medical research has confirmed the positive effect of music therapy on anxiety and depression in people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease.[3] These medical studies confirm what many dementia patient carers have found, that music has a profoundly positive effect on their mood and ability to communicate. The positive effects of music on dementia patients has until recently featured in mainstream dialogues about dementia. The research shows that music, as well as improving the mental health of dementia patients, can improve their ability to recall information and to communicate with carers and loved ones.

Whilst finding a cure or effective form of prevention are major areas of research, we concurrently need to explore opportunities for managing all forms of dementia and ensuring the highest possible levels of wellbeing for those people affected. For families and loved ones, retaining communication and engagement with dementia patients is a real challenge. It can be exceedingly difficult to maintain loving relationships with parents or grandparents when a person has limited speech or memory. Through music, people with dementia can enjoy quality time with their loved ones and sometimes express themselves through song or dance. Music also gives families the opportunity to sustain a relationship with dementia patients for longer and retain intergenerational connections that dementia otherwise can damage and ultimately undermine totally.

More research

As Chief Executive of the International Longevity Centre UK (ILCUK) and a member of the global alliance of ILC’s studying these issues, I endorse the recommendations made in the research paper What would life be – without a song or a dance, what are we? A report from the Commission on dementia and music.[4] The ILC UK has done considerable research into this issue as has the ILC global alliance.  This report was produced with the support of the Utley Foundation.  It recommended that Music Therapy play a far greater role in dementia care. It also recommended that more research continues into the benefits of music on those with dementia. In December the ILC will be hosting an event called The Future of Ageing 2020which address various policy issues concerned with an ageing population, including how to better care for those diagnosed with dementia.

Access to music

The present issues that exist in social care mean that far too many people with dementia do not get access to Music Therapy or regular exposure to music which would improve their quality of life. For people in residential care facilities there are often music programmes available, however for the many thousands of dementia patients who receive care from family or unpaid carers there is often limited access to such schemes. This is sad, as evidence suggests that regular exposure to music can reduce aggressive behaviours and improve anxiety and depression levels.

The present COVID-19 crisis has been a difficult time for everyone. For people with dementia this COVID-19 has had devastating consequences. According to the Alzheimer’s Society one in four people who have died of COVID-19 in the UK have had some form of dementia. One reason for this has been the rapid spread of the virus through residential care homes. As a result, care facilities have placed restrictions on people visiting meaning programmes such as Music Therapy have been suspended for the foreseeable future. A recent survey by the Alzheimer’s Society found that 78% of people with dementia feel lonelier and more isolated because of the pandemic. Once current social distancing guidance eases, it is important that programmes like Music Therapy are re-established.

While music is in no way a cure, it can provide some much-needed relief and temporarily increase cognitive functioning for dementia patients. There needs to be greater recognition of the benefits music has for those with dementia. The work of the care sector needs to be expanded in conjunction with the music industry to explore ways they can deliver more programmes and schemes that will help those with dementia and their families.


[1] Alzheimer’s Research

[2] What would life be – without a song or a dance, what are we? A report on the Commission on dementia and music. Produced by The Utley Foundation and The International Longevity Centre

[3] Effect of Music Therapy on Anxiety and Depression in Patients With Alzheimer’s Type Dementia: Randomised, Controlled Study

[4] What would life be – without a song or a dance, what are we? A report on the Commission on dementia and music. Produced by The Utley Foundation and The International Longevity Centre


Baroness Sally Greengross has been a crossbench (independent) member of the House of Lords since 2000 and Co-Chairs five All-Party Parliamentary Groups: Dementia, Corporate Social Responsibility, Bladder and Bowel Continence Care, Social Care and Ageing and Older People. She is the Vice-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Groups on Choice at the End of Life and Longevity and is Treasurer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Equalities. Sally is also Chair of the cross-party Intergenerational Fairness Forum.

Sally is Chief Executive of the International Longevity Centre – UK; was Co-President of the ILC Global Alliance from 2010-17 and is now their Special Ambassador, and was a Commissioner for the Equality and Human Rights Commission from 2006-12.

Baroness Greengross was Director-General of Age Concern England from 1987 until 2000. Until 2000, she was joint Chair of the Age Concern Institute of Gerontology at Kings College London, and Secretary-General of Eurolink Age. She is an Ambassador for Alzheimer’s Society, SilverLine and HelpAge International.

Baroness Greengross is a Member of several advisory boards including Fujitsu’s Responsible Business Board.

She is President of the Pensions Policy Institute and the Association of Retirement Housing Managers; a Vice President of the Local Government Association and Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine and the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries.

Sally is Patron of several organisations including the Association of Retirement Community Operators; Care & Repair England; the Ransackers Association; and Age UK Westminster. Sally holds honorary doctorates from nine UK universities.

Her work on ageing has been recognised by the UN Committee on Ageing and she received an outstanding achievement award from the British Society of Gerontology as well a British Geriatric Society Medal. Sally was UK Woman of Europe in 1990 and has been an Ambassador for the Prince of Wales supporting responsible business practice.

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