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Music therapy is a great help for patients with dementia

New program now making a difference in classes at LO Adult Community Center


by: JOSH KULLA - Caroline McMahon, seated at left, is the respite therapy coordinator at the ACC. She listens while Kelley St. Claire performs.One of the best measures of the success of the new music therapy program at the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center is foot engagement.

That means all of the tapping feet while therapist-musician Kelley St. Claire performs with a group of dementia patients and their caregivers, who also sing and clap their hands.

Berta Derman, ACC human services supervisor, is excited about finally having a program that she has wanted for years. Thanks to grant money left by the Lake Oswego Adult Center Foundation, music therapy began in February. Derman often sits in with the group to join in the singing and general fun.

“Sometimes someone is sitting around, not engaged,” Derman said. “When the music starts they brighten up and start singing. One thing that stays with people, even when they have dementia, is their ability to respond to music.”

“We know that music therapy works,” said Caroline McMahon, ACC respite therapy coordinator. “We’ve seen a difference. People even get up and dance when they can. We recognize the importance of this therapy. It brings out their personalities. The songs that people learn when they’re young stay with them. When they’ve lost the ability to read, they can still sing songs. It brings back emotions when they hear music they love. Tears flow when they sing.”

A wide variety of music is offered: hymns, big bands, patriotic songs, ’40s and ‘50s music. How about Little Richard? Maybe not yet.by: JOSH KULLA - Kelley St. Claire of Earthtones Music Therapy Services gets everybody singing, clapping and foot tapping during a recent music therapy session at the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.

While the ACC has often had volunteer music performers for its respite programs in the past, only now could it afford to bring in therapists who are also skilled in performing music. When the ACC got the money, Derman immediately sought the services of Earthtones Music Therapy Services, whose director Jodi Winnwalker has been involved for 30 years with helping dementia patients with music therapy.

“A lot of research shows how music helps the blood to flow in the brain,” Winnwalker said. “Music is such a phenomenon because it does not apply to just one area of the brain, it affects everything. People with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease or strokes can tap into a part of their brain that is still working. People with strokes cannot speak, but they can sing.”

Winnwalker talked about the melodic intonation therapy being used for former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, whose brain was shattered by a gunshot in an assassination attempt in 2011.

“It’s a retraining of your brain so you can talk,” Winnwalker said. “Another cool thing is that when a brain is under stress, music can help it relax and increase the ability to think clearly or act more effectively. People who are very disorganized or disoriented can be helped to be more organized and focused when they can tap into a melody that is deeply imbedded in their brain.”

Music therapy groups can be so valuable because participants are given structure, organization and a joyful environment, and, as Winnwalker said, the music “gives them something to take part in that is familiar and that they can talk about with others.”

It is not unusual for something remarkable to happen at a music therapy session at the ACC.

“At one of our meetings we had a tap dance teacher who still brought her tap shoes,” McMahon said. “She had forgotten so much, but she could still get up and dance.”

Even more good results are expected when the ACC begins an art therapy program for dementia patients in the coming weeks.



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