(The translation is generated by Google Translate and it might contain inaccuracies.)

Music therapy boosts brain activity in dementia patients

Music therapy plays a crucial role in sparking positive emotions and enhancing brain function for those living with dementia.

At the James L. West Center for Dementia Care, music therapy is integral for helping residents maintain and even improve their ability to perform everyday tasks, while also managing emotional difficulties such as anxiety, agitation, and depression.

Music therapy is a professional healthcare field grounded in science. It uses music to meet a wide range of needs—social, emotional, cognitive, physical, spiritual, and comfort. Music activates the brain, and therapy takes this further by tailoring goals and interventions to each resident based on scientific research and professional training in music therapy.

“Research shows that the music we loved in our young adult years sticks with us, playing a crucial role in our memory systems even as they decline,” said Cara Perkins, a licensed music therapist at the center.

Additionally, techniques from Neurologic Music Therapy are used to help residents improve sensory and motor skills, speech and language, and cognitive functions. NMT, in which Perkins is certified, is grounded in neuroscience studies about how the brain processes music.

Techniques from Hospice & Palliative Care Music Therapy are also utilized to support residents and their families emotionally and spiritually as they navigate end-of-life challenges, another area of Perkins’s expertise.

Music therapy improves physical function and abilities

NMT techniques are incorporated with residents to exercise the body to maintain and improve physical function and abilities. Rhythmic Auditory Stimulation is an NMT technique that focuses on engaging the mind and body to follow through with movements with a consistent tempo.

NMT techniques encourage neurotransmitters to send consistent signals throughout the brain, even to areas most impacted by dementia. This gives opportunities to re-access, to re-activate, and to re-establish those abilities that have been affected by the disease.   

Placing sounds into consistent tempo and rhythms and incorporating various scientific-based interventions contributes to establishing neuroplasticity, the re-building of functions and abilities, within the brain, helping participants reach their truest potential for overall functioning.

Music therapy improves communication, social, and oral functions

Melodic Intonation Therapy, another NMT technique, is incorporated to encourage re-building communication and social abilities. 

Melodic Intonation Therapy encourages and guides the residents to match pitches to syllables or words and has them gradually build to full sentences and even social interactions with others. 

The music is strategically phased out once the speech and social interactions have been re-established.    

Other NMT techniques also utilize various wind instruments, such as the harmonica, and melodica, to exercise respiratory, oral, and swallow muscles.  

Team bonding and active music-making engagements are also incorporated to encourage interactions with others. 

Music therapy exercises the mind

Music therapists use a variety of tactics to engage residents’ minds to sustain attention and to exercise cognitive abilities with music. Guided songwriting is frequently incorporated and exercises executive functions within the brain. 

Following simple tasks, engaging in music recall and identification exercises, music improvisational experiences, sequencing, and completing phrase exercises all provide cognitive stimulation that helps maintain or improve cognitive function.

NMT techniques are also incorporated, such as gently guiding the residents to multi-task by having them focus on a bird visual on a screen and having them count how many times the bird looked to the side at the same time while the music therapist is incorporating a distraction with the harp or other sound.  

Encouraging residents to follow simple directions by tapping sensory target drums with both hands simultaneously in various locations also increases awareness of surroundings and exercises both sides of the brain.   

Music therapy enhances the quality of life

Music therapy enhances quality of life by supporting residents’ sense of comfort and contentment emotionally, spiritually, and physically.  

Perkins and the James L. West team strive to connect with every new resident to discover how music therapy may benefit them. They work with families to learn about individual residents and spend time observing and speaking with residents and their families and caregivers.

“The goals focus on assisting residents with regaining or maintaining abilities and functionality related to their health diagnosis, personal challenges and inspirations,” she said. “Music therapy has proven to be a strong encouraging force for many James L. West Center residents to assist them with accomplishing their personalized goals.”

Music therapy supports a sense of autonomy

Perkins says music therapy provides a sense of hope and supports a sense of independence for residents. It provides a space and environment for them to choose engagements, to make decisions, and to engage within the programming as he or she feels comfortable, though encouragement is always provided.

Residents can experience an increased sense of autonomy as they choose, or vote collectively, on their day-to-day engagements with the music therapist. 

“The music therapist always supports anything that will provide residents with a sense of independence and autonomy,” Perkins said.

While weekly themes are selected each month, residents sometimes ask to change the theme at a scheduled session based on their current interests or even emotional needs, and the music therapist adapts accordingly. 

Music therapy encourages self-expression

The weekly Drums Alive circles provide opportunities for residents to reconnect, express themselves and relieve stress. 

The circles are co-led by a resident who used to be a teacher. Perkins said she encourages residents not only to participate in the activities but also to lead them. 

The drum circle provides an opportunity to explore expressive outlets and assist with communicating and connecting with others, which is sometimes made challenging as the disease progresses and communication becomes more difficult.

The reverie harp is an open-tuned instrument with a calming sound. It is often used in therapy sessions because it is easy to use and residents feel successful when exploring it. 

Perkins brings in various instruments for the residents to select from to explore. 

Sensory stations are also located throughout the various houses for residents to use and explore.

Music therapy calms or awakens the soul 

Music can calm emotions and help redirect residents experiencing difficulties during the day. It can help new residents become more comfortable in a new environment and reduce feelings of isolation. 

Therapists routinely incorporate the ‘iso principle technique.’ The therapist meets the resident where he or she is by matching the overall demeanor, respirations, and emotional state with the music. Then the therapist gradually eases and guides him or her with support from the music into a desired state of being.   

“Music therapy visits are prioritized each day according to the emergent needs of the residents. The monthly calendar also indicates which house or location I will be at each day. I strive to reach out to as many residents as possible every week, even if he or she welcomes companionship and supportive presence,” Perkins said.

Therapist inspired by music’s impact

As an elementary student, Perkins struggled with reading comprehension and was often behind her classmates. Due to her struggles in the classroom, she was shy and reserved, and music became her outlet.

“Music has always been a part of my life,” Perkins said. “The violin and music gave me a sense of ‘power’ to feel like I could succeed in something and be able to express myself without having to speak.”

Cara Perkins, music therapist, leads individual and group music therapy sessions.
Cara Perkins, licensed music therapist, leads residents in individual and group music therapy sessions.

Perkins’ was the voice and protector for her younger brother with special needs. Her first encounter with music therapy was when her brother participated in a state-funded disability program that included music, equine, massage, and recreation therapy. He also had other therapies such as physical, occupational, and speech therapies as other health challenges came about. Her older brother also inspired her to pursue a therapy career. He is a physical therapist and owns his clinic in California. 

After seeing music therapy’s impact on her brother, it became Perkins’ calling. She pursued a degree in Music Therapy at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas. She worked with individuals with disabilities, hospice, older adult populations and dementia. 

Perkins’ family has an extensive history of medical issues, which benefited from therapy. Her grandfather had Parkinson’s Disease, her grandmother had Alzheimer’s Disease, and her younger brother and father both had strokes amongst other health challenges. 

“This is where I get my drive for music therapy and helping others,” Perkins said.

Learn more about residential care at the James L. West Center for Dementia Care by visiting the Residential Services section of our website.