Music as medicine

Huey Lewis was not referring to music therapy when he penned the 1980s hit, “I Want a New Drug.” But it does meet the criteria set out in the song: no side-effects, inexpensive and generates positive feelings. It is also clear that laughter, chatter and smiles are more plentiful at St. Marguerite Manor after residents get a dose of it. 


The prescription is a half hour of music therapy, every two weeks since the fall, for St. Marguerite residents with signs of dementia. These seniors are quite happy to dive into the customized workshops with Christina Wedman, Certified Music Therapist with Blue Sky Music Therapy.

Each session opens with a personalized welcome song that includes the first name of each participant. Then Christina leads the group on a musical tour of songs popular in their heyday, such as “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” “Accentuate the Positive” and “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.” 

“My playlist is based on their age and preference,” Christina explains. “I pick songs that were popular in their teens and early adult years, as these are the most significant music-wise.” She runs through each verse twice, so her audience can sing along and exercise the part of the brain where memories and lyrics are stored. If the seniors request a song she doesn’t know, Christina looks it up to play at the next session. 

These are active music therapy sessions, which include singing and playing instruments. Though it might look like entertainment, Christina explains that “the focus here is on non-musical goals, including choice-making, communication, social interaction and participating in group discussions. I strive for outcomes that can improve their quality of life.” She also sets personalized goals for participants. “With John, making eye contact and lifting his head is a goal,” for example. “With Margaret, it is taking part in group discussions.” 

Music Therapist Christina Wedman connects directly with each resident as she plays the guitar and encourages them to play their instruments.

The seniors also play egg-shakers, wooden spoons, xylophones, and drums or wooden blocks. “I choose instruments with a pleasing sound,” Christina explains. “Loud or abrasive instruments can negatively affect seniors and may lead to further agitation.” 

The instruments play a key role in the therapy. “The brain is more stimulated when we are moving and using instruments,” Christina explains. “When we activate different parts of the brain, it can bridge a gap. If one part of the brain doesn’t function as well as another, music kind of crosses over—that’s the beauty of music.” 

Christina often walks the room and engages participants throughout the session with direct eye contact. She also helps the seniors play instruments and offers them song and instrument choices. “Often, people with dementia have very little control over their day,” she explains, “so we try to present choices and offer an outlet for expression in each session.”

Recreation Therapist Lindsay St. Pierre says the residents get a boost for their mood and memory with the music therapy. It also prevents "sundowning," the late-afternoon confusion and agitation that is common with dementia, she adds. “Christina’s sessions offer the correct amount of stimulation at this challenging time for residents. It’s been a big help.” 

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