Music-led program helping people with dementia backed by the Public Health Agency of Canada

Better healthcare
Music and Health Research Institute
Research and innovation
Faculty of Arts
Research centres and institutes

By University of Ottawa

Office of the Vice-President, Research and Innovation, OVPRI

Gilles Comeau in the Piano Pedagogy Research Laboratory
Professor Gilles Comeau in the Piano Pedagogy Research Laboratory
University of Ottawa Professor Gilles Comeau and partners have struck a chord with the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), obtaining a $1 million grant to conduct research project targeting individuals with dementia and those at risk.

Professor Comeau and his team are leveraging music as a tool to enhance the well-being of those facing dementia and aging challenges. The researchers will study the effects of individually tailored programs, diverse partnerships and community-based interventions.

“It’s one of the most rewarding projects I’ve worked on in my career. In addition to the research aspect, it has a very human and important dimension for the people involved,” says Professor Comeau, director of the Music and Health Research Institute.

Dementia is a chronic condition that tends to escalate over time, manifesting primarily as a decline in cognitive abilities such as memory, planning, and judgment. According to the Government of Canada, about three-in-four Canadians report knowing someone who is living, or has lived, with dementia.

Pairing motion with melody to enhance wellbeing

Drawing from a wealth of research, including a World Health Organization scoping review, the project explores the positive impact of music engagement on well-being. Professor Comeau’s team puts these claims to the test by implementing community-based music interventions for people with dementia.

The project uses the Dalcroze-based music education approach, which invites participants to learn music through body movements. Adding movement to the music in a group environment, this approach simultaneously addresses the risk factors of physical inactivity and low social interaction.

So far, the Dalcroze method has shown feasibility and safety for older adults with mild to moderate cognitive impairment or mild to moderate dementia.

“By integrating movement with music, we harness cognitive, physical, and social benefits, ultimately contributing to improved mental health,” says Professor Comeau. The potential is too significant to overlook.”

The project also extends beyond affected individuals, reaching their families and caregivers, and preventatively, those at risk.  

In fact, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, nearly twice as many caregivers of seniors with dementia experience symptoms of distress, such as anger, depression, or a feeling of being unable to continue, compared to caregivers of other seniors.

The research team is developing evidence-based guidelines to assist music educators in implementing music and movement programs within social prescriptions—medical recommendations by healthcare professionals to address social, emotional, or mental health issues. Additionally, they will roll out an apprenticeship training program for healthcare partners interested in working with older adults. 

Coming together for healthier communities

Several community partners have joined in to support this one-of-a-kind initiative. Along with the University of Ottawa Brain and Mind Research Institute, collaborators include Bruyère Hospital, The Royal, Vanier Community Service Centre, Dementia Society of Ottawa and Renfrew County, and Radical Connections.

“The initial phase of the project received wonderful feedback from our local partners and we’re continuously fine-tuning our programs to cater to each group’s unique needs,” says the uOttawa researcher.

Now, they’re looking to expand by collaborating with additional community organizations in Northern Ontario, Halifax, Montreal, and Toronto, to create a large network for well-being.

“Our goal is to improve the quality of life for those with cognitive decline, bringing joy through music learning. Despite memory loss due to dementia, participants are still able to learn new skills and significant progress is seen each week,” he added.