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Music Therapy for Clients with Alzheimer's and Dementia

Music Therapy interventions can be designed to improve wellness, manage stress, alleviate pain, enhance memory, improve communication, and provide unique opportunities for interaction. Research in Music Therapy supports the effectiveness of intervention in many areas such as facilitating movement and overall physical rehabilitation, increasing motivation to engage in treatment, providing emotional support for clients and their families, and creating an outlet for expression of feelings. Because Music Therapy is a powerful and non-threatening medium, unique outcomes are possible.

How Does Music Therapy Make a Difference?

Music Therapy treatment is efficacious and valid with older persons who have functional deficits in physical, psychological, cognitive or social functioning. Research and clinical experiences attest to the viability of Music Therapy even in those who are resistive to other treatment approaches. Music is a form of sensory stimulation, which provokes responses due to the familiarity, predictability, and feelings of security associated with it.

How does it work?

Most people have a positive relationship with music, and long term memories of experiences in faith based and educational settings will still be accessible to the person with memory loss. Because musical perception is processed throughout the entire brain, music activates all areas of brain tissue during both receptive and expressive musical behavior. Musical memory, therefore, is stored throughout the brain which means that it is accessible even in the late stages of memory disorders when only some

brain tissue is still capable of functioning normally. Additionally, music stimulates the use of synaptic connections between neurons in the many specialized areas of the brain, which may otherwise remain dormant and lose function due to the characteristic inactivity of dementia and other memory disorders.

Music Therapy cannot reverse the loss of cognitive function, but it can maximize the existing function.

Does it work?

While pharmacological remedies for behaviors and psychological symptoms of dementia (BPSD) cause side effects (e.g., nausea, agitation, sleep difficulties), studies have shown that non-pharmacologic treatments pose fewer side effects and Music Therapy has been effective in reducing BPSD (2015).

Research on Music Therapy in the treatment of memory disorders has shown the following benefits:

♦ Decreased depression & improved mood

♦ Decreased anxiety & agitation

♦ Decreased medication

♦ Increased alertness & orientation

♦ Enhanced cognition & memory recall

♦ Improved communication & meaningful socialization

♦ Improved sleep & appetite

♦ Reduced caregiver stress

What Do Music Therapists Do?

After assessing the strengths and needs of each client, qualified Music Therapists develop a treatment plan with goals and objectives and then provide the indicated treatment. Music Therapists structure the use of both instrumental and vocal music strategies to improve functioning or facilitate changes that contribute to quality of life. They may improvise or compose music with clients, accompany and conduct group music experiences, provide instrument instruction, direct music and movement activities, or structure music listening opportunities. Music Therapists are usually members of a health care interdisciplinary team and they implement programs with groups or individuals that display a vast continuum of needs, from leisure time classes and community involvement to bedside care.

Where Do Music Therapists Work?

Music Therapists offer services in skilled and intermediate care facilities, adult foster care homes, rehabilitation hospitals, residential care facilities, hospitals, adult day care centers, retirement facilities, senior centers, hospices, senior evaluation programs, psychiatric treatment centers, and other facilities. Music Therapists also work for agencies that provide in-home care. Some therapists are self-employed and provide individual and group Music Therapy services on a contract basis.

What Can One Expect From a Music Therapist?

When individualized music experiences are designed by a professionally trained Music Therapist to fit functional abilities and needs, responses may be immediate and readily apparent. Participants without a music background can benefit from Music Therapy.

Music Therapy provides opportunities for:

  • Memory recall which contributes to reminiscence and satisfaction with life

  • Positive changes in mood and emotional states

  • Sense of control over life through successful experiences

  • Awareness of self and environment which accompanies increased attention to music

  • Anxiety and stress reduction for older adult and caregiver

  • Non-pharmacological management of pain and discomfort

  • Stimulation which provokes interest even when no other approach is effective

  • Structure which promotes rhythmic and continuous movement or vocal fluency as an adjunct to physical rehabilitation

  • Emotional intimacy when spouses and families share creative music experiences

  • Social interaction with caregivers and families

How Does Music Therapy Help Families?

Music Therapy provides:

  • A forum to share common experiences and enjoyment as a couple or family

  • Meaningful time spent together in a positive, creative way

  • Relaxation for the entire family

  • Stimulation for reminiscence of family bonds

  • Unity and intimacy for families through verbal and nonverbal interaction

  • Respite for the caregiver

Oliver Sacks, M.D.:

"I regard Music Therapy as a toll of great power in many neurological disorders--Parkinson's and Alzheimer's--because of its unique capacity to organize and reorganize cerebral function when it has been damaged."

American Music Therapy Association. Retrieved from:

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