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Endearing moment of guitarist playing music for smiling elderly woman

Music Therapist Strikes a Chord with Memory Care Residents

Kimberly Williams has been running music therapy programs since the onset of the pandemic at Willow Gardens Memory Care, part of United Hebrew of New Rochelle’s senior care campus. With new restrictions due to Covid-19, she had to adjust how she works with residents in the assisted living community, which is dedicated to Alzheimer’s and dementia care.

“We all want to feel connection, purpose, and comfort. Our therapy sessions are designed to do that, whether with a large group or one-on-one,” says Williams, a board-certified music therapist. “The sessions look different now, but they’re still having an impact on our residents.”

Music therapy is a key part of dementia care at United Hebrew. For many residents affected by Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia, musical activities – singing, playing chimes or simply listening to music they remember from long ago – can reconnect them to the world around them, even when nothing else seems to reach them. It also can calm a resident who has become restless and anxious, as is common among people dealing with dementia.

Prior to Covid, Williams facilitated group therapy sessions and encouraged sing-a-longs. With new social distancing measures in place, she has shifted to sensory interventions with small groups.

She creates music while strolling the residence, going from room to room with her guitar and keyboard to engage and comfort each resident. To provide a change in environment and stimulus, Williams often starts playing her guitar at a quiet low volume, then gradually increases it for a while, after which she returns to quietly playing.

“The changes in tempo impact people differently, depending on their emotions,” she said. “Those who are agitated or combative will relax and calm down when they hear the quiet tones. It’s really exciting to see how music changes people. For example, some residents with advanced dementia who are typically non-responsive become lively and expressive when the volume increases.”

In that way, individual needs are addressed through one-on-one music therapy.

“Music therapy is designed to residents manage their emotions. Through hand tapping and humming, our residents can connect better with each other, and they develop an awareness of the space around them. Music calms and soothes, but it can also simply brighten a moment. And that adds to their quality of life.”