Recently, I worked with a teenager who had been in a motor vehicle crash when she was a toddler. The paperwork that I saw before meeting her said she was a non-verbal quadriplegic, so I didn’t know what to expect. But her parents had a lot of hope and weren’t about to give up on her. That’s why they were giving therapy another try. They wanted more than anything for their daughter to be a more successful communicator.
I loved working with this young lady, although I didn’t make much progress. She could identify objects and, if given enough time, make a choice from a group of four images on an iPad. Left neglect and cortical blindness, added layers of difficulty. I wanted to know if she could communicate a firm yes or no by uttering different sounds, pointing, or doing anything that would let me know that she understood. We were not able to make much progress there either. Did she want a ball? Sure. Is this a ball? Yep. Did she like asparagus? Sure. Would she like to have broccoli? Okay. Did she really mean what she said or pointed to or was it just chance? She was very compliant, but she didn’t want to or couldn’t answer questions or play therapy games.
When she did respond though, I tried to shape her behavior by offering her favorite reward: music. When the music came on, whether it was me singing Row, Row, Row Your Boat or Carly Rae Jepsen belting out Call Me Maybe
on the iPad, she showed me that she was totally alive inside. I could have played music and rocked out with her all day.
So when I saw that a nearby music therapy organization was hosting a showing of the documentary Alive Inside, I had to learn more about the effect of music on people with neurological impairment. I found the whole video on YouTube and watched it. If you haven’t seen it and you have an hour and five minutes, I highly recommend it to you, especially if you are a therapist or a caregiver.
The Alive Inside story is about the power of music to bring out our spirit. When music was offered to people with dementia and Alzheimer’s, they came to life. Evidently, part of the documentary went viral because it was so amazing to see people who had been slumped in their wheelchairs, expressionless, come to life when the volunteer put earphones on them that played music from an iPod. The iPod was filled with music chosen especially for the person, music from their era or music that reflected something about their life.
An administrator in the nursing home said, “I’ve been working with patients with Alzheimer’s for 38 years and I’ve never seen anything as effective as this.” He had never seen a pill that could improve a person’s attitude so quickly and completely. Another healthcare worker watched a patient and exclaims, “Look how fast her mind is responding to these songs!” Yes, her brain is responding.
If you watch the whole documentary, you will see there are other, younger people in the nursing home who are touched by music. One of them may have been a young man with brain injury. People with brain injury in the support group I facilitate worry a little about their future and wonder if there is a nursing facility in their future, so this part especially touched me.
The documentary raises questions about the medical model that is used in nursing homes and similar facilities where people with neurological impairment receive care today. Healthcare professionals are trapped into offering them treatments insurance will pay for. They have to show progress toward a goal. But if we stop and think about it, how effective is this medicine or that therapy worksheet? What is the goal? What do we really want to do for people with neurological impairment then?
If you are a therapist or a caregiver and have given music therapy a try, how has it worked for you? How have you used it to make progress toward goals? If you are a person with brain injury or neurological impairment, have you worked with music in therapy?
The documentary makers feel that music brings out a person’s spirit of optimism and hope. Music therapy has allowed one person shown in the documentary to live on successfully without medications and in her own home with family. Through music therapy, inner awareness is unleashed. The person with neurological impairment and his or her therapists and caregivers see that there is opportunity to live and grow and be, even given impairment. Quality of life is improved. Shouldn’t that be the goal?
In the end, music therapy is not about a pill or a rehabilitation worksheet that will make a patient better, but about finding an individual’s spirit and helping them learn to live positively with impairment. We have learned enough about the brain to know that a positive attitude and mindful living contribute immensely to health and happiness, haven’t we? So don’t forget to pack music in your therapy toolkit and make time for music to unleash what’s alive inside.