The sounds of science

Music therapy shows great benefits for seniors

Photos provided by The George Center for Music Therapy
Photos provided by The George Center for Music Therapy
Photos provided by The George Center for Music Therapy
Music therapist Hannah Seger Lytle, sings with Jeanette Winton at Manor on the Square in Historic Roswell.
Photos provided by The George Center for Music Therapy
Music therapist, Melissa Sorensen, leads intergenerational preschool program at Arbor Terrace at Crabapple in Roswell with preschoolers from Primrose School of Roswell North.
Photos provided by The George Center for Music Therapy
Photos provided by The George Center for Music Therapy
Music therapists with the George Center for Music Therapy work with clients at 20 residential facilities in the metro area.
Photos provided by The George Center for Music Therapy
Photos provided by The George Center for Music Therapy
Gene Oberdorfer, a resident at Atria North Point with therapist Andrea VerBurg.
Evidence-based research shows music therapy improves memory recall, language and cognitive functions, stimulates positive interactions and decreases agitated and aggressive behaviors.”
Jamie George, Licensed and board certified music therapist

Early stage:

Go out dancing or dance in the house.

Listen to music that the person liked in the past.

Experiment with various types of concerts and venues.

Encourage an individual who played an instrument to try it again.

Compile a musical history of favorite recordings.

Use song sheets or a karaoke player so the individual can sing along with old-time favorites.

Middle stage:

Play music or sing as the individual is walking to improve balance or gait.

Use background music to enhance mood.

Opt for relaxing music — a familiar, non-rhythmic song — to reduce behavior problems at nighttime.

Late stage:

Utilize the music collection of old favorites that you made earlier.

Play soothing music to provide a sense of comfort.

Exercise to music.

Do drumming or other rhythm-based activities.

Use facial expressions to communicate feelings when involved in these activities.

Leisure art, as well as directed art therapy, is an increasingly popular activity in assisted living communities. There are many benefits to exposure to art including:

Increased self-awareness

Relieving stress, anxiety and confusion

Improving motor skills

Improving cognitive skills

Helping to cope with transitions

Facilitating communication

Older adults tend to have more age-related functional impairments that affect vision, hearing and balance, which can lead to chronic pain, anxiety and depression. Creating art projects can take the focus away from daily concerns and on to the creative process.

Painting, flower arranging and clay are the most common art mediums used at communities. As long as safety is taken into account, the possibilities for artistic creation are endless and include:


Jewelry making




Art therapy for dementia patients

Art projects can create a sense of accomplishment and purpose. They can provide the person suffering from dementia — as well as caregivers — an opportunity for self-expression. An Alzheimer’s patient, unable to grip a paintbrush, can be quite successful creating a visual masterpiece dipping sponges in multiple paint colors.

When planning an art activity for someone with middle- to late-stage Alzheimer’s, keep these tips in mind:

Keep the project on an adult level. Avoid anything that might be demeaning or seem child-like.

Build conversation into the project. Provide encouragement, discuss what the person is creating or reminiscence.

Help the person begin the activity. If the person is painting, you may need to start the brush movement. Most other projects should only require basic instruction and assistance.

Use safe materials. Avoid toxic substances and sharp tools.

Allow plenty of time, keeping in mind that the person doesn’t have to finish the project in one sitting.

Information provided by

Using music as behavioral therapy has been around longer than the written word, and likely as long as the spoken word, with references to the benefits of music appearing in the works of Aristotle and Plato in Ancient Greece.

But the use of music in a clinical setting to help patients suffering from memory loss, speech functions, cognitive skills and other dysfunctions is a relatively new therapy in the United States, with its roots in the military.

Soldiers returning from battle during World War I with post-traumatic stress disorder saw improvements when music was part of their treatment, according to experts in music therapy.

Beginning in the 1980s, music therapy was found to have benefits for people with Alzheimer’s disease or related dementias in managing the myriad of issues associated with the disorders, said Jamie George, director of the George Center for Music Therapy (GCMT) in Roswell.

“Evidence-based research shows music therapy improves memory recall, language and cognitive functions, stimulates positive interactions and decreases agitated and aggressive behaviors,” noted George, who is a licensed and board certified music therapist.

Music therapy was found to stimulate the parts of the brain that were being affected by dementia, creating new synapses and “exercising” the brain.

GCMT has music therapy programs in place in 20 senior communities throughout the Metro Atlanta area, serving nearly 300 people in a variety of programs. Clients are based in memory care, assisted living and independent living communities, with programs geared to the level of need, said George.

Music therapy programs are most predominant in memory care and assisted living centers as treatment options, but they are also being added to independent living settings as more adults seek to keep their minds active.

Music therapy can vary from “goal oriented” activities focused on improving functions and behavior, to an intergenerational approach with preschool children, and even teen rock bands, interacting with the elderly for shared enjoyment.

The benefits with music therapy in the senior settings can be seen every day, said George, and has proven results in people with dementia, Parkinson’s disease, as well as those who have limited functions as a result of strokes.

Music is an international language that nearly everyone responds to and has connections.

“Most people associate music with important events and a wide array of emotions,” said George. “Every culture uses it, and it is the universal language. Used appropriately, music has few negative outcomes and many benefits.”

Most of the GCMT clients have music therapy at least once a week, with benefits often being seen at the onset.

“We certainly have curves where we may see a huge improvement in the first six months, then look to change up the goals to see continued improvement,” said George. “That’s our job as music therapists to find what is most successful.”

To be licensed and board certified, music therapists must have their master’s degree, although the profession is moving toward a doctoral degree. Therapists must have 1,200 clinical hours before going for board certification, she noted, and they must be proficient in guitar, voice, piano and drums.

George, who was board certified in 2007, was a voice performance major at Western Michigan, and received her master’s degree from the University of Georgia. ■


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