Music therapy eHealth supporting people with dementia

A music therapist and a human-computer interaction expert help carers use music to calm people with dementia.

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Music therapy

‘Music therapy helps to calm people with dementia if they experience states of agitation,’ says Professor Felicity Baker, University of Melbourne. Felicity’s research shows that singing to people with dementia improves their symptoms. ‘This is amazing because dementia is a degenerative disease,’ she says.

‘Music also generates autobiographical recall.  If someone with dementia listens to music they know, it stimulates their memories. That helps to calm the person.’ 

Felicity wants the benefits of music therapy to be widely available. She created the Homeside study, used in countries around the world. This program guides carers to use music to help people with dementia complete everyday tasks.

Computer music therapy

But carers cannot always be present. So Felicity’s team is working with Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, to develop an eHealth music therapy application.

Dr David Silvera, Australian eHealth Research Centre, CSIRO, is one of the project’s technical leads. He is an expert in autonomous systems and human-computer interaction. David’s team will design the algorithm that chooses what music to play to the person with dementia.

The design problem

‘The music therapist matches familiar music to the person’s level of agitation,’ David says.

‘To do this automatically, the computer has to assess the person’s level of agitation. It needs to select and match personalised music to the agitation. Then the computer needs to detect the person’s response and adjust as needed,’ David says.

The computer needs to process this data in real time so the machine can control a music therapy session.

David says designing this ‘closed loop’ is the most challenging part of the project.

Technology can decide levels of agitation in controlled laboratory environments. But this project aims to decide levels of agitation in uncontrolled environments, which is more difficult.

Using sensors

David’s team will use sensors to monitor the person with dementia. Sensors can detect changes in their heart rate and sweat on their skin.  Microphones can record the speed and volume of their speech and the duration of pauses between words. Wearable sensors can sense changes in physical movement.

‘I’m looking forward to creating a personalised music therapy response using this system,’ David says.

More music therapy for people with dementia

Felicity hopes the MATCH eHealth application will increase the positive impact of music therapy for people with dementia.

‘It’s not the same as relating to a real person, such as a carer or music therapist. But we hope it can become part of the continuum of that relationship’, Felicity says.

The Music Attuned Technology Care eHealth solution is funded by $2 million from the MRFF.

Photo: Music therapy research session with Professor Felicity Baker, University of Melbourne.

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