Local experts stress importance of music therapy in nursing homes


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Local experts on music therapy and aging gathered to discuss the importance of music in the lives of the elderly — and the unsatisfied role of the community in helping nursing-home residents to engage in that relationship.

The specialists shared their experiences with music therapy for nursing-home patients during a panel on Sunday following the movie screening of Sundance Film Festival award winner Alive Inside at FilmScene, 118 E. College St.

“One of the things our society has done is separating people with disabilities from the rest, often putting them in isolated buildings on the outskirts of town,” said Mercedes Bern-Klug, the director of the aging studies program at the University of Iowa, who served as a panelist at the event.

The film explored the ability for music to reawaken the souls of those suffering from Alzheimer’s — closely following Dan Cohen, a social worker for the nonprofit organization Music & Memory, as he brought music into nursing-home facilities across the country using iPods.

Music therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals in a therapeutic relationship with a trained professional.

Kelly Carlson, director of music therapy services at West Music who was also a panelist, said what was shown in the film was not music therapy, but that the nature of music is naturally therapeutic.

“I often try different types of music to figure out what works best with the patients personally,” Carlson said. “There’s many things a music therapist has to take in and consider in order to provide exceptional therapy.”

Kim Hawkins, a music therapist at the UI Hospitals and Clinics and also a panelist, said she didn’t like the music being distributed to the nursing-home patients through headphones because music should be a shared experience that offers patients an outlet to come alive.

“The use of iPods isn’t doing enough to help the residents engage with their surroundings,” she said. “Music therapists bring together the relationship that individuals have with their music.”

A general problem the panelists highlighted was the lack of community involvement with nursing home residents, which is helped by volunteers who come in and sing to the patients in a group setting.

Hawkins said music therapists help encourage these relationships to grow and thrive.

“We cannot expect nursing-home staff members to do it all; it needs to be a community-wide effort,” Bern-Klug said. 

She said problems nursing-home residents face aren’t going to be solved simply, but with radical changes. The use of music therapy in nursing homes is one of those changes, and it’s not being welcomed with open arms.

Bern-Klug said all too often, nursing homes aren’t integrated into the community, and as a result, the residents feel isolated.

The panelists agreed music might be the outlet to make this happen.

“It was just a small thing Dan Cohen did, but it makes a big difference,” Bern-Klug. “The emotional care these patients need comes from being involved.”

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