Why I Decided to Become a Music Therapist: Music Therapy & Dementia

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My first exposure to music therapy was in a day program for individuals with dementia. I had never imagined that I would someday become a music therapist; I thought I would play flute in a world-class symphony orchestra, but once I witnessed the power of music therapy, there was no going back.

Durin my first semester at Berklee College Music, I spent long hours in the practice rooms rehearsing flute and perfecting my technique. I loved performing, but I started to feel a calling to become a helper and to do something thatt involved more daily interaction with people. After meeting a music therapis by chance, I was invited to observe a group music therapy session in a day program for older adults witht dementia. I arrived to the day program during their lunch hour, and I felt sad to see how much support the once vibrant and capable participants needed. They required assistance with feeding, mobility, and all basic activities of daily living (ADLs). Some had lost all ability to verbally communicate or ambulate independently.

The music therapist and day program staff helped the participants over to an area with comfortable seating arranged in a semi-circle, and once everyone was in place, the magic began: people who could no longer walk were dancing, people who could no longer speak were joyfully singing songs of their youth. Bright smiles and laughter lit up dim, expressionless faces. In that moment I felt a renewed clarity of purpose and knew my fate was to recreate that moment.

After the program, I signed up to volunteer with the music therapist who worked full-time in the assisted living in the same building, then I went back to Berklee and applied to the music therapy program.

While volunteering, I observed music therapy groups and individual sessions on both the high-functioning and low-functioning dementia units. My favorite group was the songwriting group on the high-functioning unit, where the music therapist used humor, joy, structure, and acceptance to support residents in confronting the harsh realities of dementia, such as becoming increasingly forgetful and dependent upon others for basic ADLs (activities of daily living).

Music makes everything easier. I say it all the time, but it’s true: exercise, eliciting verbal phrases, memory recall, interacting with others positively, confronting difficult and painful emotions . . . the list goes on. There are a million and one ways people with dementia can benefit from music therapy, and the concept seems so obvious for me, initially it didn’t occur to me to write a blog post about it! Music therapy should be a staple in every nursing home and assisted living. Indeed, there are not enough music therapists to go around: music therapists can also serve as consultants in developing supportive music programs, or train caregivers in the safe integration of music into daily support tasks. (Care must be taken to reduce the risk of harm when providng music interventions).

Music therapy can:

Please contact me for more information about the benefits of music therapy for individuals with dementia.

Resources:

https://www.todaysgeriatricmedicine.com/news/story1.shtml

Music therapy can aid in post-stroke cognitive, speech, and motor rehabilitation, assist in mood regulation, and help individuals navigate difficult emotional changes and challenges

Each time I hear a story of someone’s beloved family member or friend who suffered a stroke, and never spoke again, I am left wondering if music therapy could have made a difference. I think of all the lives affected by the tragedy, loss, heartache, and the frustration of losing the ability to communicate effectively, perhaps on top of hemiplegia or hemiparesis, or cognitive deficits. Music therapy has become standard care in many of the world’s leading rehabilitation hospitals, is reimbursable through insurance, and stands firmly on the foundation of a substantial body of research and clinical experience. Every stroke survivor should have access to music therapy, when clinically indicated.

When you hear a song you like, you might feel like you’ve just got to get up and dance, or you just have to sing along. You may notice that your mood shifts, or you feel more motivated. Maybe you use music when you’re cleaning, exercising, or to help young children follow instructions. The pull and power of music is what makes it a potent and transformational tool in neurorehabilitation, and the global processing of music throughout all areas of the brain provides unmatched flexibility as a therapeutic mechanism.

Nearly 30% of stroke survivors experience symptoms of depression, which can hinder functional gains and contribute to social isolation, and may be masked by sleep disturbances or aphasia. Music therapy can be a focused or multi-tasking modality, working in multiple domains simultaneously or sequentially, (Clements-Cortes & Haire, 2019). For example, the act of expressing oneself vocally in service of improving speech may also improve mood. Similarly, a focus on improving emotional symptoms may yield increased motivation and desire to engage in the potentially daunting task of physical rehabilitation, increasing treatment adherence. Additionally, music therapy techniques can decrease perceived exertion when compared to traditional occupational therapy, (Lim, H. et al 2011).

Moving beyond standard MIT, or Melodic Intonation Therapy, as is common in speech therapy, music therapy provides the opportunity for creative self-expression through improvisation within the context of a developing interpersonal relationship, creating additional motivating factors for the patient/client. When the music therapist validates the musical and emotional expressions of the client, the client feels more invested in the session, and the positive feedback from the therapist drives the client to continue on in the work. Rather than superfluous, the emotional component moves forward the rehabilitative aims of the session, and solidifies the gains made by activating more areas of the brain, making the experience more neurologically meaningful.

While researchers are still working to determine if there is a “golden period” for the use of music therapy in stroke rehabilitation, it is well-known that neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to adapt to change through reorganization and the formation of new neuronal connections, persists into adulthood. Therefore, stroke rehabilitation can still be effective many months or years after the injury.

Subscribe to this blog to learn more about how music therapy can help stroke survivors, and stay tuned: in the coming months, we’ll be taking a deep dive in to music therapy for:

  • Cognitive rehabilitation
  • Speech rehabilitation
  • Physical rehabilitation
  • Emotional support

Do you know someone whose life has been impacted by a stroke? Contact Bloomsburg Music Therapy for a 30-minute consultation.

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Clements-Cortes, A., and Haire, C. (2019). Individuals with acquired brain injury (ABI): implications for music therapy in the treatment of depression. Music & Medicine, 11(2), 108-114.

Lim, H.A., Miller, K., Fabian, C. (2011). The effects of therapeutic instrumental music performance on endurance level, self-preceieved fatigue level, and self-perceived exertion of inpatients in physical rehabilitaiton. Journal of Music Therapy, 48(2), 124-148.

Singercise – Parkinson’s Therapeutic Singing program

Alysha Suley, MM, MT-BC of Bloomsburg Music Therapy has partnered with the Lewisburg YMCA at the Miller Center to offer a new program for people with Parkinson’s disease to improve speech intelligibility, increase vocal intensity, improve respiration and swallowing, and reduce feelings of isolation. The program, offered completely free of charge to all participants thanks to a community grant from the Parkinson’s Foundation, will be held virtually over zoom until further notice.

Photo credit: Drew Kauffman

Singercise is held on Wednesdays from 4:30-5:30, and interested parties may register here.

For more information on the benefits of singing for individuals with Parkinson’s, check out my previous blog post here.

Hope

I’m a person who runs on hope. I don’t mean that I’m just an optimist; I am fueled by hope. I am motivated by the potential, and driven by the endless possibilities I can see just over the horizon.

One of my favorite things about the profession of music therapy is that we get to focus on the good in a person. Sure, we can work on goals related to “deficits,” but what comes out in the music are the strengths of the individual, the beauty of their uniqueness, and their best and most endearing qualities. I get to focus on the hope.

As a music therapist, it isn’t my job to give up on you (in fact, I hope that is no one’s job!). It’s my job to work with you, and let your best self emerge, live, and breathe in the music, so that when you walk out of our session, you are “putting your best foot forward,” and letting your own unique strengths carry you onward.

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In the past few weeks, it has been more difficult for me to feel hopeful. These are uncertain times, and I have struggled, like many, many others, with losing my usual schedule and the ability to carry on “business as usual.”

I have been clinging to the hope that I may be able to offer music therapy telehealth services, despite the difficulties inherent in working from home in a rural location (read: my internet is slower now than it was in the 90s). This past week, I was finally able to test out a session, and I was thrilled to discover that the results exceeded my expectations!

Although lacking many of the benefits of an in-person session, this session demonstrated to me that it is indeed possible to offer something of value, which may help to ease the isolation many are experiencing due to the current guidelines set out by public health officials.

Therefore, I would like to offer my services via a HIPAA-compliant telehealth platform. Please contact me if you have any questions or would like to learn more.

Hope lives on! Can you see the possibilties? I can!

New! Pre-Registration now open for 8-week Anxiety Reduction Music Therapy group – held in downtown Bloomsburg

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Bloomsburg Music Therapy will offer an 8-week music-based anxiety reduction group for adults of all ages. The program aims to:

  1. provid experientials of music-based mindfulness techniques participants can use at home
  2. build resilience “from the bottom up” through improvisational music therapy

No experience necessary! There are no pre-requisites, musical or otherwise. All necessary equipment will be provided and included in the cost of the program.

The program will require pre-registration and pre-payment. The total cost of the program will be $160/person, and includes all 8 weeks.

This article offers a overview of music therapy and some of the research on music therapy and anxiety.

I need to give credit where credit is due – the Better Breathers Support Group over at Geisinger Bloomsburg Hospital suggested our community could benefit from a program like this and they are my inspiration!

Please contact info@bloomsburgmusictherapy.org for more information.