Music is a powerful thing. It has the power to relax, motivate, lift the spirits and help people express themselves.
In the hands of a board-certified music therapist like Natalie Young, it can do so much more, especially for patients in the memory care unit at assisted living residences and nursing homes.
"A music therapist has been trained to tap into this power and intentionally use music to help heal the mind, body, and soul," Young said. "Because of the positive outcomes, it is becoming more and more common to incorporate music therapy programs in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, hospice programs, and care centers."
That being said, Young also doesn't want people to get the idea that she is just there to perform for the residents.
"I want to spread awareness that music therapy is much more than entertainment. It is a clinical practice based on scientific evidence, and it is conducted by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program," Young said.
Young — who works at Westfields Hospital along with Anna Eltringham (music therapist at Regions Hospital) — have been taking turns facilitating group music therapy sessions at the Deerfield since the program started in February. The program was funded by a grant obtained by the Deerfield and is in partnership with the music therapy program at Westfields Hospital & Clinic.
"She has provided a lot of therapeutic music options to our memory care households and we have seen great success in the improved behavioral needs of our residents. We have valued this partnership grant with Westfields to provide more options to empower our residents through the innovative therapies," said Deerfield Housing Director Jackie Waalen.
Music therapy sessions occur once a week in the memory care unit of the assisted living residence and in the nursing home. A session lasts 30 minutes to an hour, and usually consists of live music, sing-alongs, instrument playing, musical improvisation, and reminiscing. Young and Eltringham use a variety of music that is familiar to the residents — often popular music and folk songs from their younger days.
"Goals for our sessions usually include providing opportunities for reminiscing and life-review, improving mood, providing a sense of control through successful experiences, increasing orientation and self-awareness, and reducing stress and agitation," Young said. "Typically, people with severe dementia are more successful when we can give them our undivided attention, while higher-functioning individuals benefit from and enjoy the social interaction of a larger group setting. When family members and spouses join in, it is also a great opportunity for emotional intimacy and social interaction."
According to Young, adding music immediately changes the atmosphere, with the energy level of the room increasing as the residents engage in music. Young says that although she might not be able to reach every resident every day, seeing an individual light up when they hear a favorite song makes the program worthwhile and successful in her mind.
"Almost anyone that enjoys music of some kind can benefit from music therapy, and it has been shown to be especially effective with people who suffer from dementia. Even in the very late stages of the disease, you will see people recalling lyrics and singing along to songs from their childhood," Young said. "This is possible because of the way the brain processes and stores music. There is not one single area of the brain where music is processed; rather, rhythm and music are processed throughout the entire brain.
"Because music is so ingrained in us, a person's ability to participate requires very little thinking for success. Music therapy provides an opportunity for the residents at the Deerfield to connect mentally, physically, and emotionally in a setting where they can enjoy themselves and feel successful."
Young also tracks the program's success by collecting data and evidence of the program's successes. She tries to constantly assess and take notes when residents participate successfully or give personal testimonies.
"The program at the Deerfield has been successful thanks in part to the supportive staff at the Deerfield who care deeply about their residents, and the employees at Westfields who have encouraged and helped facilitate the partnership," Young said. "Music therapy has brought much joy to the residents and their families at the Deerfield, and getting to know the residents has brought much joy to me. I hope there is a way to continue the presence and support the impact music therapy has made at the Deerfield after the grant period ends."