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March 10, 2020

Music Therapy & Alzheimer’s Project: Connections that Resonate

by Julie E. Avirett MM, MT-BC

music therapy & Alzheimer's project

First, the strumming of an acoustic guitar fills the room. Then, feet begin to tap in response and smiles emerge as voices join together singing Side by Side. For the next 45 minutes, the music therapist facilitates music interventions to increase socialization, exercise motor skills, and elevate mood. They continually assess each person’s responses and alter elements as necessary. 

For over 15 years, Healing Hearts Music Therapy, LLC has been a provider of music therapy for the Alzheimer’s Project serving Caregiver Support Programs, Day Respite Programs, and the annual Forget-Me-Not Walk. Board certified music therapists lead group sessions at four of the Day Respite locations: Wakulla, Southwood, Good Shepherd, and Saint Paul’s UMC. Apostle Vanessa L.William PhD, Coordinator for the Southwood Respite, replied,

“Music therapy is a great benefit to the individuals at Southwood. It inspires those who are nonverbal and verbal to communicate by singing or humming. Especially in a group session, they have so much fun together. Music therapy helps them to remember some of the music they once loved listening to. It motivates them to dance, clap, and tap their toes!”

Reviewing the Research

Researchers have been studying the impact of music therapy in the social, physical & emotional functioning of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease. MRI imaging reveals that music activates various areas of the brain. The rhythmic movement of tapping on a drum or shaking a maraca occurs due to music stimuli reaching the cerebellum. Active and passive participation with music stimulates the hypothalamus releasing hormones including ones to regulate appetite, sleep, mood, and heart rate. Consequently, studies have shown music to decrease agitation and aggression. The American Music Therapy Association noted the following opportunities for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and their caregivers:

  • Improved mood
  • Reduction of stress and anxiety for both the caregiver and older adult
  • Decrease pain
  • Stimulation for recalling life events
  • Movement and vocal fluency
  • Meaningful connections through verbal and nonverbal interactions between the older adult and family members

How Music Therapy Makes a Difference

Healing Hearts Music Therapy designs each group session according to evidenced-based research. The session often includes cued movements paired with music to exercise motor skills. The use of live music enables the music therapist to alter tempo, volume, and genre. This allows them to maximize engagement and reduce agitation or over-stimulation. A 12-bar blues progression can encourage songwriting and improvisation providing an emotional outlet and feelings of success while creating music amongst peers. Singing aids in vocal fluency, socialization, and enjoyment. The sense of community is strengthened. Live music elicits recall of life events creating opportunities to connect with one another. Songs such as On the Road Again and King of the Road may spur memories of vacations or former occupations.  Laughter and head nods of agreement rose after a lady replied that camping was her favorite vacation because she didn’t have to cook. Her husband grilled all week.

In addition to the Day Respite Program, Healing Hearts has been a guest lecturer at Caregiver Support luncheons. As a result, caregivers learn music techniques that they can incorporate at home. This can help in reducing agitation, establishing routines, improving comfort, and creating meaningful interactions. In addition, self-care music activities are demonstrated to help reduce caregiver fatigue. A fast tempo song or one with encouraging lyrics can yield emotional release, increase motivation and elevate mood.  Conversely, music at the tempo of the caregiver’s resting heart rate paired with rhythmic breathing facilitates relaxation and stress reduction. 

Thanks to Your Support

Healing Hearts Music Therapy, LLC is honored to partner with the Alzheimer’s Project helping individuals and caregivers to maintain the highest quality of life. It is certainly important to note that our music therapy services are provided within our community primarily through donations. We thank our contributors for this much needed service! With your help, we seek to expand it to other respite locations that we serve.     

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