When music becomes therapy for seniors with dementia, Alzheimer’s and depression

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    Jerry O'Leary leads a musc therapy class in a song at NewCourtland LIFE in North Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

    Jerry O'Leary leads a musc therapy class in a song at NewCourtland LIFE in North Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

    Music therapist Jerry O’Leary greeted his class at NewCourtland LIFE, a senior day center, with a promise to play some old favorites.

    “We mixed a little bit of gospel and a little bit of Motown here for you today, ’cause we know how you guys like that stuff,” said O’Leary, prompting claps and cheers from the room. 

    On a Monday morning in August, about 30 people from the North Philadelphia area gathered in a sunny classroom for their monthly music therapy class – a non-medical intervention that helps seniors with issues from depression to dementia.

    Music therapists have found that music from earlier times can help seniors build self-esteem and social networks. If they have dementia, these therapists say it can help “orient” their minds to the present.

    “It’s called client-preferred music and it’s one of the magic ingredients in music therapy,” said O’Leary. That may be because music works on parts of the brain that develop first – and are usually the most resilient in the face of dementia, according to Paul Nolan, assistant professor of Music Therapy at Drexel University and former director of the school’s music therapy education program.

    Research from the National Institutes of Health supports this scenario. “It turns out that the medial prefrontal cortex is also one of the last brain regions to deteriorate in Alzheimer’s disease,” said Professor Petr Janata of the University of California, Davis, highlighting one of the most prevalent forms of dementia. FMRI studies have shown that the medial prefrontal cortex activates when a listener hears familiar music. Nolan says this may explain why nostalgic songs can stay with people with dementia – but there has not been enough research to pin down the exact mechanism of that connection yet.

    “Learning the mechanism isn’t going to be the proof – the proof is already in the effect,” said Nolan.

    ‘It helps me get better.”

    At NewCourtland LIFE, O’Leary works with seniors who have a range of physical and cognitive abilities – some participants were wheeled in by attendants, while others, like Brother Mike Wilkerson filed in early and eagerly. Wilkerson is the only man on NewCourtland’s member choir, and he credits singing at the senior center and at church with helping him get over a stroke. “It helps me get my life together. It helps me get better,” said Wilkerson.

    Non-verbal participants also reacted positively to the class.

    “There’s a little lady here named Gloria… and she’s so quiet,” said participant Teresa Lester. But, Lester said, during this particular class, Gloria sang. “I was so proud.”

    Recreation leader Agina Shaw said that the class helps people with dementia become less agitated for the rest of the day. “During their time in this room, their mood changes,” said Shaw. “Especially our folks with dementia and memory impairment, they remember the songs so they feel comfortable, they’re able.”

    After rousing renditions of “My Girl,” “America, the Beautiful,” and many others, the class disbanded slowly, with many participants hanging back to chat animatedly with one another. O’Leary, the instructor, was quick to point out that while he loved his job, he couldn’t take all of the credit for the therapeutic effects of the class.

    “The music is the therapy, I’m just the facilitator,” said O’Leary. “They’re the one’s doing it.”

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