For Debi Johnson, music therapy comes straight from the harp and the accordion.
So whether she’s squeezing out a lively polka on the concertina or a gentle, soothing melody from the stringed instrument she cradles in her arms, she knows just how important those sounds are to the special people who make up her small audience.
Seated beside her in a wheelchair this particular day is Delores Coburn, who suffers from advanced dementia. She may be unable to walk or speak, but she is very much able to smile as the sounds take her to a happier place.
“The thanks I get is when I see a toe tapping, or I see somebody who may be slumped over in their chair but their mouths are moving to the words of a song,” said Johnson, 63, who eight years ago took a harp therapy program in California that changed her life and the lives of the people she now plays for.
She recalled being frustrated once at not being able to “reach” a dying woman whose family had asked her to play for their relative.
“What I was doing wrong was playing too much music and I hadn’t met the clients where they were at,” said Johnson, who started in music with the piano at age five. “That’s the skill of a music therapist. I really, truly believe your entire concentration has to be on the client. When I’m doing this, I’m listening with my ears, I’m listening with my eyes, listening with my very skin to what’s happening around this person.
“Intention is the biggest, most effective tool, that you have. This intent to bring change to the person.”
She has also sometimes found that much commitment can take its toll personally.
“It’s pretty hard to distance yourself,” she said after thinking about the question for a moment. “There’s been a couple times when I got teary when I heard that someone passed away. You kind of fall in love with them all, they all have different idiosyncrasies with them, but you really do love them all.”
One lady in particular she became very close to over a period of seven years was originally from Norway and always used to sing one particular song in her native tongue.
Johnson wanted so badly to be able to play the song for the woman she contacted the Norwegian consulate who put her in touch with a Norwegian doctor of music and she eventually found out what the song was, much to the delight of her friend and client.
“I’m a little passionate about my vocation. I think that’s the only way you can do it,” said Johnson. “When you come into a facility it is all about them, you leave yourself at the door.”
Music is described as a core function in the brain, preceding language in children and remaining after cognitive thought departs in the latter years.
“In Alzheimer’s patients they’ve shown areas of the brain completely disappear and become just clogged with plaque but the one area that does not get affected is the area where music resides,” said Johnson. “So music can always reach, especially live music.”
Often the soothing instrument or voice can help change dementia sufferer’s state of mind if they are agitated or, in the case where a man who was constantly moaning.
“I matched the tone of his moan and in 10 seconds he stopped,” recalled Johnson. “I look at music as a prescription, so when you can prescribe music instead of drugs to calm somebody how much better is that?
“I can’t imagine any side affects from this that would be bad, unless you’re doing heavy metal,” she added with a laugh.
For her part, Jean Kearney, who coordinates recreation, volunteers and adult programs for Village by the Station, Johnson’s work is paramount to her residents well being.
“Music is the single best gift I can give someone with dementia, it is the single best part of their day,” said Kearney. “It stirs long term memories and even though they don’t have speech when they hear old familiar tunes, they are able to sing the word to those tunes.
“These people live their lives with loss, there are so many things they are no longer able to do throughout the day so music is very positive – when they are engaged in music it’s a win for them and for us all.”
Therapeutic value at a cost
In terms of value music therapy is priceless but it comes at a cost.
Sadly, although the benefits of how music helps people, especially those with dementia, is scientific fact, in most cases it’s an added expense.
That’s why for Jean Kearney of Village by the Station, organizations and individuals who donate to the cause are crucial to keeping her program running.
“It’s huge (donations) because we just couldn’t do it without them,” she said. “This isn’t entertainment, it’s not our everyday-at-two o’clock entertainment where people come in and sing for us.
“This is someone who actually knows each individual, knows their culture, knows their musical choices. It is an actual prescribed intervention therapy for their disease.”
Former Penticton school district superintendent turned author Gary Doi and local hockey legend Ivan McLelland recently teamed up to donate $1,000, in part raised by the sale of Doi’s most recent book, Who Knows What, which featured chapters of McLelland’s and Kearney’s lives.
“For each of my books, I have had a different charity and this time around I really took the advice of Ivan McLelland who said ‘why don’t you donate to a facility that caters to those who suffer from dementia?’ And he named Village by the Station,” said Doi, who has now edited five books. “When I was putting that story together about Jean, I watched her in action interacting with the daycare program and using music and song to help stimulate memories of those people.
“More and more we all know someone who is affected with that particular illness. This is a small contribution but never the less the fact we were able to participate with Jean and her staff made is so much worthwhile.”
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For McLelland, the Village by the Station music program has a very special place in his heart. It was one of his wife Faye’s most favourite things when she was there from 2006 until she died three years later.
“It was wonderful for her, it just brightened her whole day,” remembered McLelland. “My lady was a person who loved music anyway and she loved to dance. Her day when the sessions were on, she would be there first and leave, last so there’s no question it’s wonderful and it’s just so wonderful to be able to help.”
Kearney said other major donations for the program have come from the Rotary Club, which recently donated $7,000 and ongoing support through the Penticton and Friends Charity Golf Tournament.