Music—Magical Medicine

Increasingly despondent, plagued by an alphabet soup of physical, mental and emotional ailments, our expanding elderly population is on a constant lookout for better methods of coping and obtaining some modicum of comfort, dignity and quality in their lives as they age.

Music therapy is proving to be of immense value in this search. Not only can appropriate music improve anxiety, pain and depression—particularly in older adults—but it has, remarkably, allowed surgery to proceed with minimal medication and anesthesia, and even shortened hospital stays. It is also capable of slowing excessive heartbeat, lowering blood pressure, relaxing mind and muscle, and yet can be utilized as a stimulant when necessary. It all depends on the beat.
My sister, Rosalind Starkman, and I have witnessed the astonishing effect of music on Alzheimer’s and other dementia sufferers. Lackluster eyes light up and habitually unresponsive or, on the other hand, overly aggressive individuals, become accessible, communicating with each other and with staff.

In one New York nursing home, musician/entertainer Wally Childs, brings his moveable keyboard feast to each of 18 units weekly, where his visits are eagerly anticipated. After his session concludes, the atmosphere and mood remain lighter for both the audience and the caretakers. A wheelchair-bound man, long unable to speak, silently mouths every word of a song Wally plays; evidently it holds some special meaning for him, freeing up long-buried memories for that brief interlude. Asked to sing along, or to play simple instruments, many people find lost functions revitalized through this warm, human connection. More potent than Prozac, with no side effects, it is far less expensive or invasive than pharmaceutical solutions. It not a panacea or substitute for necessary traditional treatment, however, but an adjunct that works wonders with those receptive to its amazing healing power.

The important factor appears to be the choice of selections or rhythm. Old popular songs from the forties and fifties are enjoyed and appreciated by those young during that era, but semi-classical and Latin rhythms also win fans. Alzheimer’s patients are particularly soothed by New Age music. It takes special involvement, patience and understanding—traits abundantly possessed by this musician—to select just what to play for whom.

We have seen the power of music transcend afflictions of all kinds. We have been able, following a musical session, to persuade our mother, 101 years old next month, to remember songs from her Russian childhood and actually sing the words with great expression, translating them for us line by line.

Families can benefit and similar results can be obtained in the home setting by playing either music that speaks to the person of pleasant past experiences, or, if unfamiliar, creates a safe, non-threatening haven where self-expression is encouraged.

There are tapes and CD’s available today that can help achieve various desirable moods, soothing the agitated (including the caregiver), relaxing tension, awakening those in a stupor. These can be helpful at stressful mealtimes, for example, when an older family member is distraught, turning a nightmare of frustration into a more pleasant, manageable interlude for everyone. Drumming seems to have an especially positive effect, perhaps because the predictable, steady rhythm is comforting and provides structure. 

Playing a piano and gently inducing your care recipient to join in, is another way to open lines of communication. It can almost become a form of conversation, with the individual playing one part while the caregiver repeats or varies the same notes. It can improve life for both the patient and the family member, and it is not necessary to have played an instrument to be able to find relief in using music to lessen feelings of isolation and loss. Music impacts on the family’s well being, making an appreciable difference, creating awareness and limiting withdrawal. When memory loss is a problem, as it is with so many older people, music can help anchor them to reality. It can even improve sleep patterns. Music a bit slower than the normal heartbeat can result in sounder sleep, and some older adults were able to stop taking insomniac medications when it was tried.

Somehow, music can activate otherwise unreachable areas, digging deep into the subconscious to release memories and experiences long forgotten. Apparently speech and singing are processed differently in the brain so that stroke victims can sometimes be helped to regain the ability to speak by singing tunes with the caregiver’s assistance. 

Development of this challenging method of dealing with the problems, physical and mental, of aging parents and grandparents, depends upon trust, respect, feedback and support from the caregivers to the recipients. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this simple approach could lead to a better quality of life for our dependent loved ones?
So here’s to a sound mind, a sound body and the sound of music dispensing health through harmony. 


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