BAR HARBOR—Music has the power to relieve the anxiety and agitation that people with Alzheimer’s sometimes experience and to bring them real joy.
Melissa Violette is proving that every day. She is director of the music therapy program at Birch Bay Retirement Village in Bar Harbor.
She said music therapy is so beneficial to Alzheimer’s patients and others with memory loss because it is everywhere in the brain.
“Even if you lose language and memories and sense of self as parts of the brain die, music is still in the parts that remain active,” she explained.
“When any of us hears a song from high school, it takes us back to where we were and who we were with, right? Well, the same thing happens with people who have dementia. A song can connect you to parts of yourself that you have otherwise lost.”
Violette provides one-on-one music therapy and leads group sessions. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, those sessions involved a lot of singing.
“Singing is now considered a possible risk, as it projects aerosols and makes us what is known as super spreaders,” she said. “Therefore, we have had to reconstruct how we conduct our in-person sessions without singing.
“We’re masking and socially distancing while conducting our sessions with instrumental and recorded music. But it’s working; we’re seeing results,” she said.
“When people move together, when they play instruments and make music together, especially when you are using their preferred music, it really increases feelings of connection and wellness. Moods start to elevate, and you see anxiety released. It’s almost like it brings the color back into the world and the breath back into everybody’s lungs.”
The music therapy group sessions are now limited to eight people, but Violette is conducting more of these sessions that she has in the past.
“We are doing our best to keep people spaced apart from each other,” she said. “We are really trying to reevaluate how we do everything in a way that’s therapeutic and helps people feel supported, but also observes safety so we can keep everyone healthy.”
Violette also is providing music therapy telehealth services for individual patients.
“For some people who don’t prefer groups, we will do some singing, but we will do it over the iPad.”
Violette said one Birch Bay resident recently told her that the biggest advantage of telehealth is the ability to see people’s faces.
“With dementia, as you lose language, reading facial expressions becomes more important than speech,” she said. “This can be difficult when people wear masks.”
The coronavirus pandemic has caused Birch Bay to institute a somewhat more restrictive visitation policy. Because of that, Violette said she feels an even greater responsibility to be a “social surrogate” for patients with memory loss who might not be able to see their families as often.
“I feel the music fills that role as well,” she said. “Music is a social surrogate, even if you are listening when nobody else is there. It provides a connection to another person’s heart.”
Violette said she has two “fantastic” music therapy interns working with her this year: Devan Elliott from Sam Houston University in Texas and Airel Farley from Pacific University in Oregon.