Therapeutic Music: The Portal to Spirit
By Carol Orsborn, Ph.D., Executive Director of CoroFaith
Not long ago, Debi Cost was introducing a dementia-care community to the power of therapeutic music. As Director of Client Enrichment for Coro Health, a media healthcare company offering MusicFirst: Alzheimer’s, this was nothing new for Debi. But this time, by the time the presentation was over, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
On that particular day, Debi had come face-to-face with Marcia, a resident in the final stages of Alzheimer’s. Often, Alzheimer’s patients are surrounded by familiar items supplied by loving family members: photos, mementos, favorite clothing. But in this case, under state guardianship, Marcia had arrived into the community without a single personal item. She spent much of her waking hours agitated, rocking back and forth. All Debi had been told was where she had been born and her approximate age. It wasn’t much—but it was enough.
Debi had done her research. Since MusicFirst: Alzheimer’s was developed by a team of neuroscientists and music therapists, Debi had access to the latest brain research. New studies indicate that the Medial Prefrontal Cortex is the hub where music, memory and emotions meet. It is also one of the last brain regions to atrophy in Alzheimer’s patients. Based on Marcia’s date of birth and geographic origins, Debi selected the category of “Gospel music” and chose the desired outcome “relax” from the MusicFirst library, and soon, the iPad was playing “The Lord Will Find a Way.”
“Immediately, Marcia stopped rocking repetitively back and forth and instead, started swaying to the rhythm of the music. But most exciting of all was that she spoke three spirited words: ‘Hymn, Wow, Amen.’” The caregivers in the room were electrified. As they explained to me later, they had never heard Marcia’s voice before,” says Debi.
Therapeutic music stands in sharp contrast to the selection of music based solely on genre and popularity, such as that available over radio or on CD’s. Rather, therapeutic music consists of programs thoughtfully built by a team of music therapists, designers and neuroscientists. While this has traditionally been prohibitively expensive for individual caregivers, Coro Health has developed an mHealth mobile app that is revolutionizing the delivery of therapeutic music to individuals with Alzheimer’s. Early adopters of Coro Health’s MusicFirst include over 1000 long-term care communities, hospitals, rehabilitation agencies, home health companies, individual caregivers and third party media distributors, supporting over 100,000 people per day.
As Marcia’s story illustrates, familiarity is one of the considerations that go into the therapeutic use of music. For Marcia, Gospel was the key that unlocked the door to her spirit. But depending on individual backgrounds, equally effective music is offered in the R&B, Country and Classical genres. Familiar songs engage people on multiple levels with such positive outcomes as the stimulation of memory senses, providing comfort and creating higher-quality physical engagement by singing, tapping feet and swaying. But other factors other than familiarity go into the therapeutic programming of music for specific outcomes.
“Simple musical themes, regardless of level of familiarity, can provide a level of consistency and connection that are designed to create an environment of comfort,” explains Leanne Flask, Chief Operating Officer of Coro Health, and an expert in the delivery of therapeutic music. “The more complexity a song has—the more instruments, singers, chord, key and tempo changes and so on—the harder the brain has to work to process the sound. Simple songs that are lower in tempo are a good choice for creating an atmosphere of calm and trust.”
MusicFirst: Alzheimer’s draws on over 1000 hours of music and is delivered over most mobile devices. Easy-to-use, the Alzheimer’s app targets outcomes for those suffering from Alzheimer’s, dementia and other forms of memory impairment as well as behaviors associated with Sundowning syndrome.