The Power of Music Therapy for Seniors with Parkinson's
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Music has long proven to promote wellness and healing – physically, psychologically, and emotionally. Research has shown that the curative effects of playing and listening to music, as well as singing and dancing to music, can modify emotions, help manage stress, improve movement and mobility, even enhance communication and cognitive ability. It seems to be especially beneficial in caring for those with Parkinson’s.

Parkinson’s and Music Therapy

Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disorder that can severely limit a person’s movement and mobility. It can also trigger varying degrees of dementia in seniors. The disease causes problems with motor coordination, especially in initiating movement, sustaining consecutive movement, and controlling the speed of movement. Over time, the brain’s ability to manage movement gets derailed by the disease.

The good news is that neuroscience research continues to prove that music therapy can be extremely effective in addressing the physical limitations and struggles that result from the disease including speech and communication deficits. By activating certain sectors of the brain that control these behaviors, music therapy can be very beneficial in caring for those with Parkinson’s.

5 Ways Music Can Improve Parkinson’s Symptoms

Studies show that music can stimulate the production of dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters (chemicals produced by brain cells) that tend to be damaged by the symptoms of Parkinson’s. The benefits of music therapy include:

  1. Improved rhythm and gait. Music-based movement (MbM) therapy can help restore a more normal rhythm and improve gait-related activities. It helps trigger the brain to respond better to movement. Rhythm plays a crucial role in rehabilitation, enhancing connections between the motor and auditory systems. Music therapy has been clinically proven to help improve the speed and length of a step, as well as motor timing ability.
  2. Improved speech and communication. Individuals with dementia often have difficulty articulating their words, making speech slurred and unclear. This may be caused by breathing issues and/or the motor aspects of speech. Singing therapy is especially beneficial as it encourages greater breath control by sustaining single syllables. If a patient also responds to music by tapping their hands or their feet, it can also aid in hand-eye-brain coordination and clarity of speech.
  3. Tremor control. Sometimes an individual can’t stop the tremors or involuntary movements, referred to as dyskinesia. The urge to move may overrule the need to relax and may even disrupt sleep. In these instances, slow rhythmic music can slow down overactive body rhythms and help induce relaxation and sleep.
  4. Enhanced emotional wellbeing. Not only does the brain change when listening to or playing music, but the emotional response to hearing music can actually increase the release of dopamine, which appears to be lacking in those living from Parkinson’s. Dopamine is known as the feel-good neurotransmitter—a chemical that carries information between neurons. Music therapy helps patients focus on the enjoyment of moving to music rather than dwell on their mobility limitations.
  5. Reduction in psychological symptoms. In addition to enhancing motor skills and coordination, music therapy can also help mitigate the psychological symptoms of Parkinson’s such as anxiety and moodiness, as well as sleep disorders. Parkinson’s can cause depression and social isolation in seniors. Participating in music therapy groups which involve drumming, dance, and singing can provide an outlet for self-expression and a closer connection to others.

Music Therapy Guidelines for Parkinson’s Caregivers

While there are many support groups and programs for music therapy, caregivers can also develop their own music therapy program. Family caregivers should be urged to incorporate music into a daily routine. Following are six easy suggestions:

  1. Create a music library. Put together personalized playlists of your loved one’s favorite songs and musical scores – music will encourage movement and singing.
  2. Make sure you have music “to go.” With so many digital mobile devices today, it’s easy to have music readily available at any given time or place. A mobile phone, iPod, tablet, or portable CD player are all you’ll need to play music while you’re at home, in the car, or out and about. Bear in mind that a simple CD player may be easier for someone with Parkinson’s to operate.
  3. Start singing. Schedule a “sing along” session at the same time every day. Play a favorite tune or musical score and sing along together.
  4. Play musical instruments. Encourage your loved one if they can still play a musical instrument like guitar, piano, violin. Even if they are wheelchair bound, you can get them to follow the beat of music with a simple to use instrument such as a tambourine, wooden maracas, or a small set of bongo drums.
  5. Dance like nobody's watching. To the extent your loved one is mobile, get them to dance, or at least sway, with the music. Dancing can improve brain health, and can also help with Parkinson’s symptoms. My father who had Parkinson’s disease loved to dance and was a fabulous dancer in his day. While he couldn’t jitterbug or swing the way he once did, whenever I came to visit we would slow dance around the living room together. My mom took pictures of us dancing and put them by his bedside.
  6. Provide music to fall asleep by. Tranquil, lullaby-like music can be used as a sleep aid, so set up a special music library of those favorite melodies as well. Soothing soundtracks of lapping waves or soft rain, and other relaxing meditation music can be easily played on a bedside clock radio or CD player.

Heartwarming Stories of Music to Mend the Mind

Even if Parkinson’s disease has progressed and caused cognitive change and/or movement challenges, music therapy can help. A video posted by a physical therapist on Facebook several years ago garnered more than 9 million views. It featured a 73-year old man who, a decade after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, was once again able to dance with his wife thanks to the therapeutic power of music.

In another poignant video that went viral, former New York City prima ballerina Marta C. González—who was living with Alzheimer’s disease and in a wheelchair —recognized Tchaikovsky’s classic Swan Lake. Upon hearing the music, she began moving her arms performing the exact same dance routine from the waist up that she performed so long ago. Music can awaken the deepest parts of our memories and get us moving again.

According to members of the 5th Dementia, an unconventional group of musicians who have all been diagnosed with some form of dementia, music can in fact mend the mind. Their twice-weekly jam sessions have brought about a remarkable transformation in each musician, highlighting the power of music in dementia care. While they may not be able to remember what they had for breakfast, the universal language of music enables them to communicate in a different manner, express their emotions and connect with others on a deeper level.

Music & Memory Care

Music can help someone with Parkinson’s bypass some of the difficulties and symptoms caused by the disease. Music therapy programs nationwide have helped thousands of elders.

One such non-profit organization helps people with a wide range of cognitive and physical conditions, so they can better engage with the world, ease their pain, and reclaim their humanity through music. By providing access and education, and by creating a network of Music & Memory certified organizations, the program strives to ensure that music therapy becomes part of standard of care in the healthcare industry.

The Music & Memory organization is working with patients in long-term care facilities, assisted living communities, hospices, adult day health centers, hospitals, and training healthcare professionals in music therapy techniques. They are convinced that music can renew lives and that music can tap into deep memories despite dementia, helping patients feel more like themselves again.

Everyone has some inherent rhythm (even those who swear they can’t dance!) And for those suffering from Parkinson’s, an active music therapy program with singing and dancing and listening to music, can not only help improve their movement and motor skills, but also their emotional health and well-being.

Resources

Music & Memory Care Programs

About the Author(s)

An accomplished freelance writer and editor, Cheryl is passionate on how to bolster our resilience in old age and reshape the course of decline. Her compassion and understanding for caregiving stems from acting as a caregiver for her mother, who struggled with dementia, and her father, who suffered from Parkinson’s.

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