Music as Therapy…… Not Just for Alzheimer's

The benefits of music continue to gain momentum for seniors, especially those affected by Alzheimers. Alex Handyside captures the magic of music in this informative article.

Music as therapy has been around since Plato’s days, but it really only took off as a science after the First World War, when musicians living near hospitals and convalescent homes were asked to play for recuperating veterans. Since then formal university programs have sprung up, and music therapists are now accredited by national or provincial professional associations.

The benefits of music therapy to Alzheimer’s patients are very well known. Numerous studies have reported that an Alzheimer patient’s musical memories are preserved even when the brain’s function is impaired. Indeed, some formerly proficient musical patients are able to continue to play their chosen instrument in spite of losing their cognitive abilities to dementia.

Less well-known is the effect of music therapy to treat bereavement, grief and severe depression.

I’m told that "Lean On Me" by Bill Withers, Simon and Garfunkel’s "I Am A Rock," and the Beatles’ "Let It Be" seem to be particularly popular.

But what exactly is it? The Canadian Association of Music Therapy defines it as: the skillful use of music and musical elements by an accredited music therapist to promote, maintain, and restore mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Music has nonverbal, creative, structural, and emotional qualities. These are used in the therapeutic relationship to facilitate contact, interaction, self-awareness, learning, self-expression, communication, and personal development.

The immediate effects of music therapy on many Alzheimer’s patients include reduction of restlessness, wandering and agitated behaviours. Music therapy also helps stimulate auto-biographical memories. For example, patients may recall events or people from when they first heard or danced to a particular tune.  Patients who are usually inanimate or unable to string three words together can be seen conducting an imaginary big band or be heard singing every word of their favourite song. One US rest home purchased iPods for all its residents and asked the families to create play-lists for their loved ones. The result: picture a dozen normally sedate residents all sat there with their headphones on, happily tapping feet, playing air-piano and singing along – they were completely transformed.

One senior remarked “It reminds me of my more nimble days. I’m a youngster again.”

And the good news is that the joy for Alzheimer’s patients keeps going after the music stops. That’s often the best time for family to engage their loved one in conversation because the patient remains happy, bright and animated for many minutes after the headphones are removed.

When I talk to seniors and their families, it seems most people have two favourite music eras: their early-twenties, and the year or two before they were married. The music from those years usually evoke the best, most positive response.

So next time you visit a senior you’re fond of, wherever they are, take the time to learn about the kind of music they liked back way-back-when. Then play it for them and wait for the smile to appear.

Article by Alex Handyside, CPCA Maturity Matters Newsletter

Matt Del Vecchio is a Certified Professional Consultant on Aging (CPCA).  He is the founder and president of Lianas - a company specializing in retirement residence search and senior transition support.

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