Therapy That's Music To Your Ears

Senior listening to music through headphones

Many Brookdale residents are involved in both community musical programs and regular therapy sessions, but it’s not often that the two are combined. Tish Zimmerman is looking to change that.

Tish, the Clare Bridge program coordinator at Brookdale Southpointe Drive in Greenville, S.C., is a licensed music therapist who has been using rhythm and rhyme to improve physical health and cognitive function for more than 20 years.

“Before I came to Brookdale Southpointe Drive, this type of program didn’t exist,” Tish said. “But as a licensed music therapist, I had been doing this for years and years, and I knew what sort of positive changes a music therapy program could bring residents.”

Music therapy provides patients with a lot more than a tambourine to shake. It is an approach to care that uses songs, beats and musical instruments to increase wellness, reduce stress and improve brain function. It is a non-intrusive method of bringing real, positive change to people in every stage of life, and it is backed by science.

Cognitive and behavioral neuroscientists at George Mason University have published research showing a positive correlation between music therapy programs and cognitive improvement in adults with dementia, and a study published in the Journal of Applied Gerontology showed that even in patients with severe dementia, consistent music therapy led to positive results. For the seniors living with Alzheimer’s and dementia at Brookdale Southpointe Drive, Tish’s music therapy program is the next best thing to time travel.

“I’ll start playing a song from their childhood — maybe Elvis or Tommy Dorsey — and before you know it, people who have trouble remembering their own family members are singing along. Music creates some of the strongest pathways for memory, and the music therapy sessions we have for our residents build on that fact.”

So what does a music therapy program look like? For dementia patients it’s very structured, with Tish starting the session by singing The Hello Song, her way of offering a familiar signal that the session is beginning. It also allows the residents to introduce themselves to the group.

After The Hello Song, Tish transitions into a “Name That Tune” game, where residents challenge themselves to identify songs from their childhood. Many residents, even those with memory loss, are able to identify popular tunes in as few as three notes.

All this music doesn’t just fire up synapses. Seniors, like everyone else, were born to boogie, and the lively music Tish chooses encourages them to move and stretch.

“It becomes low-impact exercise, full of beneficial movements like crossing the body’s center line with their arms. But to them it just feels like dancing!” said Tish.

Sessions usually include a percussion interval, where residents work on coordination and motor skills by keeping time using drums and tambourines, and they close with a sing-along — usually the hymns her patients grew up singing.

“Music therapy does wonders to improve our residents’ quality of life,” Tish said. “We keep them active, engaged and entertained, which results in happier residents who have fewer problems and more focus.”

Toni Norman, vice president of Brookdale’s hospice operations, has been also incorporating music therapy as a care treatment since 1993.

“Music touches the human soul in a way words alone cannot. I have worked with music therapists in hospice for more than 25 years,” Toni explained.

“I have witnessed the joy on a daughter’s face when she heard her mother, who was nonverbal due to Alzheimer’s, sing all the words from one of the songs she sang from her childhood.

“I have been at the bedside of a patient in respiratory distress and witnessed our music therapist use music to elevate her symptoms and breathe easier. In bereavement, our music therapist worked with the children of a dying man and helped them express their anger by drumming,” Toni said.

And these experiences are why music therapists like Tish say starting a music therapy program takes more than a basket of maracas and a record player. Becoming a licensed music therapist takes years of specialized education and advanced certifications. However, as Brookdale’s programs show, the benefits to residents and patients are worth it. 

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