UI professor brings music therapy to dementia patients


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A professor and her class at the University of Iowa have brought music-therapy sessions to people all over the area this semester, ranging all the way from pre-schoolers to dementia patients.

UI music Professor Mary Adamek works in music therapy and found ways to increase access to it for more than 30 years. Adamek works with preschoolers for speech development.

Most recently, the UI Art Share Program was able to fund a service-learning component of one of her classes through a Better Futures for Iowans grant. Her project received approximately $1,000.

Adamek, two other music therapists, and a group of 16 students went to four area nursing homes with patients with dementia and held music-therapy sessions with the patients and their family members.

“So they can have a meaningful experience, and that’s what we were trying to bring to these people, and it was great,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it’s engagement. It’s something that they can do together.”

Dementia generally refers to loss of memory and other cognitive ability. Up to 5.3 million Americans currently have Alzheimer’s disease, which is the leading type of dementia. A 2010 estimate found more than 69,000 Iowans are living with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.

Linda Myers, an academic clinical program management specialist in the UI College of Nursing, participated in one of the sessions with her mother.

“It was fantastic,” she said. “Mentally, she wasn’t always present, but the music brought her such happiness. It took her to some really happy places for that day.”

Myers said shortly after the session, she looked for more music-therapy services for her mother. Her mother passed away unexpectedly weeks later.

“Little did I know she was at the end of her life,” she said. “[But] it was one of the best days we had in some time.”

In the sessions students and music therapists led music therapy exercises, including group sing-a-longs and instrument playing.

“I think the neatest thing for me was we saw exactly what we were talking about [in class] in real life,” UI senior Bethany Holty said. “We just learned about this, and now we got to apply it.”

Holty and classmate Kristin Conrad both participated in leading a music-therapy session at a memory care unit in Solon.

“It was great to see the reactions [of] the clients,” Conrad said. “One of the ladies I was sitting next to was nonverbal, but the songs being played were familiar to her, and she couldn’t sing, but her face just lit up.”

Adamek said part of why this project and other projects she has created have gone so well is because of her students.

“What I do, and the outreach I do, is really because I have a great team of students I work with,” she said. “I kind of feel like the coach of a winning team.”

In addition to working with her students and engaging in projects to bring music therapy to a variety of age groups, Adamek also works with the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts on developing and discussing policy, practices, and standards for providing arts education to students with disabilities.

Last summer, she attended a conference at the Kennedy Center in which she and many other professionals from arts and special education came together to write an online book about the intersection of the two forms of education. Adamek cowrote a chapter of the book.

“In the chapter, we talked about how music experience can help students with disabilities practice [self-determination] skills,” she said. “That’s what this is about, promoting those self-determining elements such as assertiveness, creativity, flexibility, self esteem, and socialization through engagement with music.”

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