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Music Therapy and the Elderly by – Dr. T V Sairam

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

Music therapy is a nascent discipline in India and yet to be rooted into the system of the elderly care. However without really being aware of the significant impact of music, and without any fore-thought, many of us are habitual in seeking for the type of music which we like as and when we find the circumstances around us are jarring.

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As and when we encounter such music by chance, we feel greatly relieved and heave a sigh of relief- again without acknowledging the role of such music.

In recent years, particularly after the world war II, the discipline of music therapy has attracted the attention of not only singers, musicians and musicologists, but also scientists from various formations such as psychology, neurology, biology, gerontology etc and as a result music therapy is tried as a complementary medicine for patients suffering from diverse psychological problems such as anxiety, dementia, dyslexia, autism, retardation. It is prescribed as a preventive therapy not only for infants, children, teenagers, middle-aged workers and executive and the elderly, but also for those who are yet to be born and growing in the mother’s womb! In short people suffering or prone to psychic disturbances are flooded with music that may help either in preventing or overcoming such disturbances addressed by appropriate music notes.

What is Music Therapy?

It refers to a target-oriented and purposeful activity wherein a therapist and a client/clients, as a part of treatment, use certain selected musical expression, conducive in arousing feelings, sensations and memories. Though its mood-enhancing effect is widely acknowledged, the mechanism as to how music could make such an impact is still an area shrouded with mystery, posing challenges to any scientific conclusion on the role of music. The main reason for this is that musical perception is very much linked to our brain cells and the human brain is still an organ of mystery to the present-day neuro-scientists.

However, it could be safely concluded that music brings huge variety to established treatment routines. Musical interaction is so rewarding that not only the patients, but also the role-players, namely the therapists and nurses -all find avenues for their expression. Lehtonen (2002) has observed that in the end, it is the patients who teach their music therapists how to implement music therapy together with them!

While there is a lack of research and experimental activity in the area of music therapy, there is an increasing level of its popularity as more and more clients find this method, non-invasive and pampering – unlike the dreadful and diabolic means adopted, more particularly in the treatments for terminal diseases.

Music for the Elderly
In a research project taken up by Salminen (1990), it was found that people in old age are very interested in music, although many of them have weakened hearing or other old-age problems. McCullough (1981) came to similar conclusion on studying over 65-year-old people living in the United States (276 persons). Of the old people examined, 31 % considered music “important to some extent”, 11 % “important” and 29 % “extremely important”.

Through music, there is possibility to arrive at one’s pleasure-giving memories and fulfilling experiences connected to one’s earlier life-events. As the social relations decrease due to ageing, it becomes all the more necessary to adopt music as a companion.McCullough observed that half of his subjects reported that the meaning of music had increased with age and only one fifth reported that it had not increased. For some, music gave them new energy and listening experiences were considered therapeutic.

Music Promotes Memories
According to Lehtonen et al (1999), music formed a vital landscape of memories, which helped old people to work through their wartime memories. Using plenty of f music with a view to activate their memories, social relationships and expression, it could be noticed that there were certain key songs, which easily opened their mental locks and helped also painful memories also to get their verbal expression. Such Finnish wartime popular songs as Little blossoming mounds and Life in the trenches had a great significance as the memory anchors of the whole generation. For instance the song Little blossoming mounds was very important because it greatly helped people to work through their sadness and longing for their killed fellow soldiers during the Second World War. These songs still have their meaning and they remind old people directly of their dead relatives, friends and neighbors. These songs represent Kleinian “healing sorrow” which enables feelings to break through without t oo much pain and suffering.

This ‘ability’ of music to facilitate communication/self-communication is attributed to its following characters:

Music gives protection to an individual in paranoid situations.
Music protects an individual against unhappiness, sadness, incoherence, loneliness and guilt and it is functioning like a pleasure giving transitional object.
Music protects an individual against unpleasant feelings and yet, at the same time, gives psychic strength to face and overcome them.
Music can also be used in frightening and unpleasant situations, for instance, against silence representing loneliness.
The Procedure for the Elderly
Normally in the treatment of healthy old people group-singing and group-listening are encouraged. It ahs been found that music associated with the vital years of such people helps in activating emotional life and memory. Period music can also be administered to the elderly along with old photo albums and souvenirs. Some therapists use old songs along with slide show, composed of the old photos, which brought lots of memories about meaningful places and music as well. The normally quiet group started indulging in talk and discussions bringing out stories of their experiences connected to such music and photos.
Recollection by Means of Music Therapy
Music can express personal experiences which cannot be expressed verbally. It can even revive suppressed sides of life, rejuvenating the ageing mindscape. Karki (1990) used music of the 1940″s in recollection therapy administered to the demented seniors. It became evident that mmories connected with music concerning by-gone times contained abundant material linked with earlier phases of life, joy, sorrow and recollection of friendships, as well as memories about a mother and being a child.