The Healing Gift of Music Therapy

Music therapist playing guitar to elderly woman bedside.

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It’s not easy watching a loved one fade away mentally with stage four Alzheimer’s, but often, the essence of that person is still within, and sometimes you can still reach them –  if you know how. That’s what VNA Music Therapy Manager, Lauren Schaust, MT, BC, has been able to do with one of her hospice patients, *Jane. Every week, Lauren visits Jane at her house and plays songs on her guitar that Jane is familiar with. “Jane receives Lauren with a sense of being at ease and expectation,” says Jane’s husband, Jack. “And she attaches a friendship with ‘the lady that comes and sings.’”

And Jane also participates, something that Jack says is relatively new. “The only time I remember hearing her sing was when we were in church, so Lauren gets her to actually sing and be a part of the activity,” says Jack.

Aptly enough, Jane’s favorite songs to sing are hymns, as Jane’s daughter, Liz, points out. “Lauren is successful in engaging with mom, and Lauren’s relationship with Jesus Christ is very evident because she’s tuned in to mom’s relationship,” says Liz. “Lauren is very personable; she’s not just someone who comes in and just ‘does her job.'”

That’s because for Lauren, this isn’t just ‘a job,’ it’s a vocation, as Lauren says herself. “This is more than a job for me. It is a joy and a passion and something I believe in my soul, beyond just the facts and figures and research behind it. I fully believe music therapy can stand on its own, but just like any job, someone who does it with love and compassion is nearly always going to make a bigger difference,” says Lauren, adding, “We are more than just musicians, that’s what makes us music therapists.”

Many people don’t totally understand this point, that music therapists are highly trained. Because indeed, music therapy is a clinical form of care in which board-certified music therapists assess a patient’s physical health, emotional well-being and cognitive skills, and then use musical instruments, typically a guitar, and the therapist’s voice (many are beautiful singers, like Lauren) to augment the hospice or home health services the patient is receiving. For example, if a patient had Parkinson’s and trouble walking, a music therapist might provide music with a strong beat to help the patient’s body move more easily, as strong rhythms in music make the body naturally want to move in time to the beat and make it easier for them to move.

In Jane’s case, her main need is cognitive. Lauren’s primary goal is to increase Jane’s sensory stimulation and engagement with her environment. “If Jane isn’t stimulated, she will let her head drop to her chest and be very withdrawn, not engaging with the things and people around her,” explains Lauren. “By using the music and specifically the songs that are familiar to her, I am working to get her to be more alert and interactive with me and the music as well as with her family when they are around, too.” 

And as anyone who has lived with someone with stage four Alzheimer’s knows, those moments when you can see that joy, that recognition, in the face of a loved one when you haven’t seen it for a long time is a priceless gift – for all involved. And that’s what she does weekly for Jane, provides a beautiful, healing light, when you know all is well. 

*All names have been changed in this article except for Music Therapy Manager, Lauren Schaust

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