Kim Hone-McMahan

Sunshine spilled through the windows at Pleasant View Health Care Center in Barberton. The autumn leaves cast a warm glow on the room, making it cheerful and inviting. Yet many kept their heads down and their eyes closed.

The caregivers at the Barberton facility spoke their names, but some residents failed to respond — until the music started. Often lost in their own worlds, now they began tapping their feet.

Those who are usually alert during the sessions encouraged those who are generally not.

Though too exhausted to remain alert for the entire time, one elderly resident sprang into consciousness when she heard a favorite tune, even pretending to play the piano; perhaps it was something she did when her mind and body were whole.

“I’ve watched very lethargic and withdrawn residents come out of their shells and connect with the world,” explained certified music therapist Kathy Lindberg, who was working with the room of mostly women on a recent afternoon. “Facilities often look at the residents who are withdrawn, won’t come out of their rooms, or sleep their lives away, to come to this kind of therapy.”

In Oliver Sacks’ book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, he writes about various ailments, including dementia, and the positive effect music can have.

“The aim of music therapy in people with dementia … seeks to address the emotions, cognitive powers, thoughts, and memories, the surviving of ‘self’ of the patient, to stimulate these and bring them to the fore. It aims to enrich and enlarge existence, to give freedom, stability, organization, and focus.”

Though he admits that it might seem like a tall order in patients with advanced dementia, music therapy with such patients is possible because the perception, sensibility, emotion and memory of music can survive long after other forms of memory have disappeared. (Country star Glen Campbell, despite being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s two years ago, is still performing in a “Goodbye Tour” which comes to the Kent Stage on Nov. 10.)

“Music of the right kind,” Sacks wrote, “can serve to orient and anchor a patient when almost nothing else can.”

Songs from past

Popular tunes from a resident’s era seem to be key to bringing out a reaction. To see it in action, check out this YouTube clip: www.youtube.com/user/MusicandMemory1, which shows a man whose brain is awakened by listening to his favorite songs.

When working with the elderly, Lindberg concentrates on tunes that were hits in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. In a few years, as more baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) move into full and assisted care facilities, Lindberg will switch to songs by artists such as Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles.

“Men and women may be sitting in a room, not knowing where or who they are, but can remember the words to all their favorite songs,” Lindberg said. “Making a connection to something in their lives causes what I like to call ‘the magic of music therapy.’

“If you sing You Are My Sunshine, it brings back so many memories. Then they are connecting to their world. It might be in the past, but they’re communicating … and connecting to their immediate environment. They are out of that fog.”

That connection to music sometimes carries on to other parts of their lives — making someone alert when they were previously seemingly catatonic.

Sacks notes there is no significant carryover effect of the power of music for some ailments; a Parkinson’s disease patient, he wrote, can regain more coordination of his or her movements with music, but once the music stops, so too does the benefit.

“There can, however, be longer term effects of music for people with dementia — improvements of mood, behavior, even cognitive function — which can persist for hours or days after they have been set off by music.”

“It touches them in a way that just makes them want to do things,” said Vivian Cavendish, activity director at Pleasant View.

One of the misconceptions about music therapy is that it’s done simply to entertain. Nothing further could be from the truth, Lindberg noted.

“We are working on clinical goals. We may be targeting fine or gross motor skills, self-esteem, self-expression or helping them with socialization,” she said.

Quality of life

Lalene DyShere Kay, director of the Cleveland Music Therapy Consortium, which includes Baldwin-Wallace University, Cleveland State University and the College of Wooster, said that as more understanding of the aging brain expands, especially how conditions like dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s affect the brain, music is emerging as an effective therapy to maintain brain function, social behaviors, memory retrieval and overall quality of life.

“Music therapy may benefit not only the patient, but also the family as the family members and patient gather with the music therapist to participate in music experiences, designed and led by the music therapist based on the patient’s music interests, abilities and family input,” Kay said. “Family members often report that ‘It was almost like it used to be when we were all together.’ ”

On a personal note, Kay said she sang and reminisced with both of her parents during the final months, days and hours of their lives.

“As I look to my own aging process, I humorously tell my college students, ‘These are the songs I’d like you to learn should you ever encounter me in one of your music therapy sessions.’ It’s a different kind of ‘quality of life insurance’ and I take it pretty seriously.”

Whether you like it or not, music is everywhere in our lives. It’s played in shopping centers, at sporting events, on television and in restaurants.

“I only had one resident in my career who was averse to music,” Lindberg said. “He hated it and avoided it the best he could. But the truth is, we all have some relationship to music. You can’t escape it.”

During the therapy, Lindberg plays the guitar and sings. Additionally, because some of the folks she works with are isolated or detached, she introduces a lot of other stimulation. For instance, a recent session at Pleasant View focused on the colors of fall. To connect a song with a particular color theme, she showed residents a scarf of the same hue. For those who were unable to communicate or move their hands, she gently rubbed the scarf on their arms — letting them experience tactically how the color felt.

After the hourlong session, Sarah Tonya, an 85-year-old resident who routinely jokes and enjoys the sessions, was again filled with joy and energy. A Barberton resident all of her life, she said the music reminds her of when she was young, though noting “none of us are opera singers.”

“I don’t care what physical or mental challenge you may have,” Lindberg added, “there is a vital, human soul in there that I think music taps.”

Kim Hone-McMahan can be reached at 330-996-3742 or kmcmahan@thebeaconjournal.com.