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Health: Melodies and Memories

Healing sounds

Healing sounds: Dr. Dylan Wint, left, and Dr. Becky Wellman say that music therapy has cognitive, social, and stress-reducing benefits.

Using music therapy to help elderly patients recall the good old days

Escaping the heat of a Wednesday afternoon in July, a 91-year-old World War II veteran enters the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health for his first musical therapy group session. He takes a chair in the circle of other patients.

Dr. Becky Wellman fiddles with two TV screens connected to a computer, in case someone joins remotely. At her feet are tote bags stuffed with music books and binders. Once the group of about 20 patients and caregivers settles down, she picks up her guitar and strums a warm-up song. The group quietly sings along to Patsy Cline’s “Side by Side.”

Wellman leads this program every Wednesday, combining her background in music and psychology to help the center’s patients trigger memories, reduce stress, and improve relationships with caregivers.

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Two volunteers pass out neon-colored nylon scarves. Wellman plays instrumental music on the computer to free her hands as she waves a scarf up and down. The group follows along. She says the rhythmic foundation of music can help patients regain motor skills.

Everyone gets to pick a song for the group to sing. One man on a motorized wheelchair, who was previously involved with theater, went with “Oklahoma!” “Didn’t you work on a production of Oklahoma!,” Wellman asks. The man can’t remember, but he remembers the lyrics.

“I’m using music to reroute what we’re doing, through a different pathway to get to where I want to go,” Wellman says. Music is not processed through any one part of the brain, so it can bypass damaged areas. Instead of asking direct questions, Wellman uses music to pull out memories or start conversations.

It’s the veteran’s turn. Wellman suggests he pick a card from a deck of music genres. He picks country. They start the song, and he joins in on the chorus, belting, “Crazy for loving you.”

In addition to music therapy, the Ruvo Center also hosts a weekly art therapy program and has partnered with The Smith Center.

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“Fundamentally, our job is not to give medications or do surgeries. We do those things as a means to improve people’s quality of life,” says Dr. Dylan Wint, a neurologist at the center. “We’re supposed to be a comprehensive service center, so we try to use resources like the incredible Smith Center.”

 About a year ago, The Smith Center developed three workshops with the Ruvo Center based on the touring Broadway production of The Bridges of Madison County, and provided discounted tickets to patients. “This is absolutely a large part of the community that deserves to be here, and they deserve to have these experiences, and oftentimes it’s hard for them,” says Melanie Jupp, program manager for The Smith Center’s education and outreach department.

Music therapy can benefit younger populations, too. The UNLV School of Medicine Ackerman Center for Autism also partnered with The Smith Center. In March, the center hosted dance and drum circle workshops. The Ackerman Center’s clinical director, Dr. Julie Beasley, says programs like music therapy help patients with language deficits and expands their limited interest range. “They have a hard time learning language and being able to express themselves. So any way that we can help them learn how to express themselves benefits everyone.”