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Music Therapy Protocol Triggers Positive Memories for Nursing Home Residents with Dementia

October 27, 2015

Kendra Ray, a PhD in Creative Arts Therapies candidate, directed a three-year study to determine whether introducing therapeutic music-based activities reduced symptoms of dementia in nursing home residents.

Not only did the findings of this study -- which involved three different Brooklyn nursing homes and was funded by a grant from the New York State Department of Health -- show that music therapy is an effective, nonpharmacological way to reduce agitation and depression for nursing home residents diagnosed with dementia, it also resulted in a curriculum, called Music Therapy: Keys to Dementia Care that may be creating a better experience for nursing home residents and caregivers at more than 600 nursing homes throughout the state of New York as well as several other U.S. states. Ray’s protocol is set to make a global impact on elderly care as it’s currently being used in Canada and adaptations are in development in Israel and Spain.

“This training manual presents an innovative music therapy program that uses a multidisciplinary care planning process led by a music therapist, aided and supplemented by certified nursing assistants. In addition, the guidebook teaches clinicians how to use iPods to calm agitation during activities of daily living,” said Ray. Bathing and wound-care are among the daily activities made less stressful by music-assisted care. The music therapy in the study is now the basis for training nursing home caregivers to do music-based activities.

Approximately 50% of all residents in nursing homes have a dementia diagnosis. According to Ray, music therapy can help reach these individuals is significantly different ways than alternatives like communication and art. “This is one of few modes of therapy that can actually trigger memories and bring the person in the here and now,” she said.

It has been shown to be especially helpful with bathing – an activity that requires assistance for an estimated 90% of nursing home residents. “A lot of people with dementia resist going into the shower room. It’s a totally different experience from their bedroom. It might be cold. It is a big trigger of agitation,” said Ray.

The music-assisted care intervention outlined in the guidebook encourages caregivers to start out the experience with music that is familiar to the resident. Though the play list in the book is generic, featuring songs like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Beyond the Sea”, assessments help determine what music works best for each person. Whether the music is already playing in the shower room, or the iPod and speakers are brought into the space with the resident, it helps to create a more relaxing environment.

“Once they are relaxed and singing along with their health care provider, the music really acts as a distraction. Instead of thinking about the experience, they’re thinking about the memories associated with a song.” Although many nursing assistants were already using music, this tool gives them a structure.

The efficacy of Ray and her team’s work at MJHS, one of the largest health systems in the New York metropolitan area, is also profiled in Emmy-winning documentary, Divine Prescription.

Ray concluded, “This groundbreaking music therapy work continues to be so gratifying—professionally and personally. Receiving the grant money from New York and then ongoing funding from MJHS has allowed what started as a hypothesis to become a data supported theory that is literally helping change the lives of vulnerable patients, their loved ones and the health professionals who provide the care morning, noon and night.”