Music therapy sparks memories, fosters communication


Melanie Isaac is handing out musical instruments, of a sort – hand chimes, turkey calls, paper towel rolls wrapped in fuchsia and green duct tape.

Every week music therapist Melanie Isaac helps residents reconnect with the songs they love.

Preparing to sing “Jimmy Crack Corn,” she faces the eight Homeland Center residents who are gathered in a semi-circle and pulls out a plastic ear of corn made for shaking and strumming.

“Want to give it a try, Genie?” she asks one.

“Sure,” answers Eugenie. “You know me!”

It’s music therapy day, one of the weekly sessions that help residents with Alzheimer’s and dementia reconnect with the music they love. The residents come from Homeland’s skilled care unit as well as its specialized Ellenberger Unit, devoted to top-quality care for those with advanced memory impairment.

In the cheery dining room, Isaac, a music therapist with WB Music Therapy, strums her guitar or plays the keyboard. Residents play rhythm on the homemade and hand-held instruments that Isaac provides.

Music is “something they don’t lose,” says Isaac.

“You’ll see people who can’t talk to you anymore. They can’t answer your questions, but they can still sing lines and lines of old hymns,” she says. “It just doesn’t go away. I try to tap into that and bring up memories associated with music and family.’

Each session is devoted to a theme, with songs pulled from the residents’ experiences, such as holiday songs or folk songs that relate to the season. Isaac mixes some brain teasers into the session, leading residents in a game of “Name That Tune” or playing part of a song for them to finish.

On this day featuring folk songs and the tunes of Stephen Foster, she shares the surprising fact that the 19th-century songwriter famous for his odes to the South came from Pittsburgh.

Strumming the opening to a familiar tune, Isaac sings, “She’ll be coming ’round. …” She halts and gestures to her audience.

“The mountain,” say sing.

A strong body of research shows that music can be an inlet for communication and interaction among people with Alzheimer’s and dementia, Isaac says.

“It helps keep their cognition sharp, and they can interact with each other in a meaningful way that’s enjoyable,” she says. “Music hangs on until the end. It’s a way that families and other people can interact with their loved ones after it’s hard to interact in other ways.”

At this session, a resident named Charlie is silent when he comes in but enthusiastically taps the hand-held chime that Isaac has given him during rounds of “Swanee River” and “Polly Wolly Doodle.” Even when his head starts to droop as the session continues, he perks up for the concluding song, a rousing rendition of “This Land is Your Land.” When Isaac tells him his work was beautiful, Charlie speaks up.

“I didn’t know what I played,” he admits. Clearly, though, he was enjoying himself.

Isaac asks the residents if any of them have made music with pots and pans. Ruby, who has been singing along with the familiar tunes, says that she has.

“My brothers and father used to play instruments,” she says.

Isaac works hard to engage the residents, and in a report to Homeland she assesses their involvement, measured by a smile or a willingness to take an instrument.

Throughout Isaac’s rendition of “Jimmy Crack Corn,” Eugenie had been brushing her plastic ear of corn with a stick in time with the music. As the song ended, she gave a closing flourish.

“That was great!” says Isaac. “You know what you’re doing with an ear of corn!”

Eugenie says she enjoys the weekly sessions. Her review of the day’s performance?

“It’s good in the ears,” she says.

Donations in support of our music therapy program are always welcomed and appreciated.  You may pay by check and write “music therapy” in the memo or you can pay online securely here and use the drop down menu to designate it to music therapy.