Music to Soothe the Soul and Mind
by Senior Spirit
Follow us: The video has become familiar to a lot of Internet users: It shows an elderly man named Henry, who has been in a nursing home for 10 years and has become largely unresponsive, spending his days slumped over in a wheelchair (“Help Spread the Music—and Give New Life to Someone You Love,” Music and Memory). But when he is given an iPod filled with familiar music, almost instantly he comes alive and starts singing along to the music. When an interviewer asks him about the music, he becomes talkative and articulate about what he likes about the music and who his favorite musician is (Cab Calloway).
The gift of the iPod comes via a program started by Music and Memory, a non-profit organization that “trains nursing home staff and other elder care professionals, as well as family caregivers, how to create and provide personalized playlists using iPods and related digital audio systems that enable those struggling with Alzheimer’s, dementia and other cognitive and physical challenges to reconnect with the world through music-triggered memories.” Based on research that shows improvement among those struggling with dementia and Alzheimer’s, the group aims to make this form of music therapy a standard throughout the health care industry.
Benefits of Music Therapy
Therapists and foundations have reported good results for music therapy, although not all the results have been validated by research. The benefits cited show that music therapy can help to:
(Adapted from Music and Memory)But music therapy is not just for those who are suffering from severe forms of memory loss and cognition problems. A growing body of evidence is showing that music, one of the most universal of all languages, can help functioning seniors improve their memory and hearing. A study by Northwestern University scientists discovered that a lifetime of musical training slows some aspects of hearing and memory loss (“Music Training May Delay Hearing and Memory Loss,” psychcentral.com).“Previous studies suggest that musical training offsets losses in memory and difficulties hearing speech in noise — two common complaints of older adults.”
- Promote wellness
- Manage stress
- Alleviate pain
- Encourage clients to express feelings
- Enhance memory
- Improve communication
- Promote physical rehabilitation
- Provide pleasure for persons with dementia
- Offer an activity for persons in dialysis, on ventilation or bed-bound
- Increase cooperation and attention among nursing home patients, and reduce resistance to care, which helps staff
- Reduce agitation for those with dementia or Alzheimer’s
- Enhance engagement and socialization, fostering a calmer social environment
- Provide a valuable tool for reducing reliance on anti-psychotic and anti-anxiety medications
The Ideas Institute is also researching the benefits of music therapy. “Research from the fields of music and art therapy has clearly shown that active engagement of elders in appropriate music and art activities reduces anxiety and pain and increases feelings of self-worth." To fulfill its mission “to provide solutions that improve the lives of older adults through the conduct of rigorous applied research,” the institute is researching “the extent to which long-term care homes and arts organizations are providing arts programs . . . that facilitate resident engagement—a cornerstone to quality of life.”
Researchers don’t know exactly how the brain and body process music, but evidence indicates that we process music with almost every part of our brain, according to Concetta Tomaino, a certified music therapist and director of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function at Beth Abraham Family of Health Services in New York (“Dementia Therapy and Music,” from the website A Place For Mom).
Tomaino and other researchers have found a strong link between the human brain's auditory cortex and its limbic system, where emotions are processed. "This biological link makes it possible for sound to be processed almost immediately by the areas of the brain that are associated with long-term memory and the emotions," she says.
Tomaino and her colleagues, including noted neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks, found that “many people with neurological damage learned to move better, remember more, and even regain speech through listening to and playing music. In numerous clinical studies of older adults with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, familiar and likable music, not medication, has reduced depression; lessened agitation; increased sociability, movement and cognitive ability; and decreased problem behaviors,” according to A Place for Mom.
There’s a big difference between passively listening to music and actively engaging in it, such as singing or dancing or playing an instrument. Suzanne Hanser, department chair of music therapy at Berklee College of Music in Boston, says that “when we actively make music, as opposed to passively listening to it, we activate another part of the brain that controls balance and movement—the cerebellum—in addition to cognitive and limbic areas” (from A Place for Mom).
Hanser once played some familiar ragtime music for a man with Alzheimer’s, while his wife strummed an autoharp. Something about the sound and vibration of the music caused the man to start moving his legs, and he ended up dancing with his wife for the first time in years. Such physical activity can also strengthen other movements, such as holding a fork or glass, according to Tomaino (A Place for Mom).
Using music to heal, today called "music therapy," started after World War II when physicians and nurses in veterans hospitals noticed their patients improved after listening to music (A Place for Mom). Today, more than 70 music therapy programs are accredited in the United States by the American Music Therapy Association, which defines music therapy as “an established health profession in which music is used within a therapeutic relationship to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals. . . . Music therapy also provides avenues for communication that can be helpful to those who find it difficult to express themselves in words. Research in music therapy supports its effectiveness in many areas such as: overall physical rehabilitation and facilitating movement, increasing people's motivation to become engaged in their treatment, providing emotional support for clients and their families, and providing an outlet for expression of feelings.”
The association reports several successful uses of music therapy:
- The Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy Clinic helps 100 handicapped children learn and relate to and communicate with others.
- Ida Goldman, a 90-year-old woman, told a Senate hearing, "Before I had surgery, they told me I could never walk again. But when I sat and listened to music, I forgot all about the pain." During the hearing, she was able to walk, although with assistance.
- The Rusk Institute of New York uses music therapy to work with rehabilitation patients. "Music therapy has been an invaluable tool with many of our rehabilitation patients,” said Acting Director Mathew Lee. “There is no question that the relationship of music and medicine will blossom because of the advent of previously unavailable techniques that can now show the effects of music."
- Oliver Sacks views music therapy “as a tool of great power in many neurological disorders—Parkinson's and Alzheimer's—because of its unique capacity to organize or reorganize cerebral function when it has been damaged."
Hanser and her colleagues found that familiar and, most importantly, likable, music gets the best responses from those suffering from mental deterioration. For example, an 80 year old would likely not be receptive to hard rock music. "To be most effective, music therapy procedures must be tailored to the individual needs of each person with dementia," Hanser says. "Each music therapy strategy must also reflect the person's history, preference and ability to engage with a certain type of musical experience. These are some of the factors that make it extremely challenging to conduct randomized controlled trials” (A Place for Mom).
In fact, study after study of music therapy reports positive results, but with a warning: Methodological limitations indicate the need for further research.
So no matter your mental functioning levels, or your age, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to dust off those piano keys, haul out the guitar from the garage, join a singing group, find a place to dance or even spend some time every day listening to your favorite music. The worst that could happen is that you’ll enjoy yourself and maybe rekindle old memories; you might improve your memory and hearing, too.