For music therapist Danielle Ambuehl, some of the most powerful tools are a guitar, rhythmic instruments and the human voice.
Shortly before lunch on a mid-May Monday, she gently quizzes a handful of residents at Eventide’s Moorhead campus who participate in one of her weekly music groups.
“Mothers are often known for giving us words of wisdom. Can you help finish these phrases?” she asks.
“The early bird …”
“… gets the worm,” says one woman.
“Actions speak louder …”
“… than words,” several interject.
Ambuehl walks around and hands out jingle bells, tambourines and shakers as she introduces the next musical activity. It is based on a song with its own words of wisdom: “Accentuate the Positive.”
“That’s a good one,” says one resident as group members begin to shake their instruments and sing along to a recording by Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters.
The half hour session looks like a simple sing-a-long, but, in actuality, the music disguises therapy at work. The residents in long-term care work on range of motion as they shake instruments. Cognitive skills are strengthened as they remember song lyrics and common phrases. And it’s all done as they socialize and build community through song.
“Music is so motivating,” Ambuehl says. “I believe that it has the power to create instant change.”
Ambuehl is a board-certified and licensed music therapist who offers services to groups and individuals at all three
Eventide locations. The fulltime staff member designs activities that use music to address physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs.
For some residents, that means socializing as a member of Eventones, a choir that meets weekly. For other residents, that means a one-on-one session with Ambuehl who will play guitar chords to reduce anxiety. She’ll even create a personalized playlist for residents who may use music as an incentive to complete tasks.
“This gives Eventide residents something that a lot of facilities don’t offer,” she says.
Music is increasingly used to help seniors increase or maintain their level of physical, mental and social-emotional functioning, according to the American Music Therapy Association. Research shows that the intentional incorporation of music in a therapeutic setting can help a person maintain a quality of life. Ambuehl strives to identify the strengths and gifts of Eventide’s residents and enhance them. She also tries to match musical genres and time periods to the residents’ interests.
“I want them to be empowered,” she says. “What instruments do they want to play? What kind of songs do they want to sing or listen to? Everyone can participate no matter what abilities they’ve lost.”
One of her favorite stories is about a resident with anxiety who hollered at inappropriate times. He also tapped his foot vigorously. Ambuehl entered his room and started strumming guitar chords to the rhythm of his foot-tapping. Gradually, she was able to slow down the tapping and soothe the resident.
“He was more comfortable. And when residents are calmer and more comfortable, it’s also a safer environment for nurses, CNAs and other staff,” she says. “Music is powerful.”
Music also challenges residents and give them an opportunity to process their experiences. Ambuehl asked one of her groups to rewrite lyrics to the tune of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” The title of the new song? “Restless Leg Syndrome Blues.”
At the weekly gathering in the long-term care unit at the Moorhead campus, Ambuehl’s group ranges from six to a dozen residents.
They open with “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here,” and they all are, singing and quietly clapping along.