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In Tune With Her Clients: Music Therapist Connects with Older Adults to Help Chronic Conditions

Jun 24, 2020 01:57PM ● By Jenna Gabrial Gallagher
Emily Wadhams and her guitar

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Emily Wadhams’ audience falls asleep while she’s performing for them, she considers the gig a success.

“Honestly, it means I’ve done my job,” Wadhams said. A board-certified music therapist and founder of Omaha Music Therapy, she has worked with clients age 2 months to 103 years, using music to achieve nonmusical goals.

With older adults, those goals can include pain management, tremor-calming, memory recall, relaxation, mood and quality-of-life enhancement, coordination and balance improvement, and an increase in general engagement.

Wadhams said that music therapy reaches people in a way that drugs often can’t, citing an experience with a patient who has Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s. “He loves his Joni Mitchell and his Bob Dylan and when I come in, he recognizes me because of my guitar,” she recalled. “A nurse was in his room doing an assessment on a recent visit. She said that he’d been trembling uncontrollably before I arrived, and his tremors stopped almost completely the moment the music started.”

Music therapy evolved into a profession in the 1940s when the first music therapy college training programs were created. Since then, numerous studies have shown the benefits of music therapy for people of all ages and with practically every conceivable condition. “Music uses and stimulates every part of the brain and changes it to make connections that weren’t there before or have been lost,” Wadhams explained, noting that, in addition to esoteric academic research, there are hundreds of videos on YouTube that illustrate this in research labs and care facilities all over the world. “You can practically see the different areas of the brain lighting up when it hears music.”

Monica Tvrdy, director of patient and family services at Hillcrest Hospice Care, said her team finds music therapy particularly helpful in enhancing quality of life for patients with issues of depression, isolation, anxiety, agitation, and falling. “For example, we had one patient who was often anxious, but had a love for Elvis. After the initial assessment, Emily told me this patient was talking to her and answering questions during the music therapy session. The sessions are the one time the patient is truly verbal and able to communicate how she is feeling.”

Of this patient, Wadhams added, “Besides Elvis, she loves hymns, and sometimes angry girl music like [the song] ‘These Boots Were Made for Walking.’ As soon as I walk in, she goes from over-the-top anxious to her whole body calming down. I love pulling out new music and seeing what she will respond to.”

Wadhams chooses different instruments for different needs. “If my client likes to play guitar or sing, we can really jam out. It’s great for lung capacity and fine motor skills. But, if someone is no longer ambulatory, maybe I’ll put a drum under their feet, and the movement of their feet helps them engage in the session,” she said. “Also, for those with Parkinson’s, drumming can help provide a successful musical experience without the patient having to worry about their tremors. Or for traumatic brain injury and stroke patients, establishing and maintaining a rhythm can help them regain some of those brain connections that had been lost.” 

Wadhams said it’s always about meeting clients where they are. Even when she and her staff can’t do it physically. During the COVID-19 quarantine, Omaha Music Therapy, which has clients as far away as Grand Island, has expanded their remote therapy capabilities. “We definitely find ourselves being creative in ways that we weren’t before. We’ve done hallway music therapy because we couldn’t go into the rooms of clients due to social distancing. We’ve done therapy over the phone or via Zoom with a bucket and a spoon. It’s just a matter of thinking outside the box.”

With a couple of exceptions (such as Frank Sinatra, whom she prefers to play from iTunes—after all, when a client wants to hear Ol’ Blue Eyes, nothing else will do), Wadhams will sing and play any genre from any decade: from classical to country, from spiritual to soul. “Johnny Cash is a big favorite,” she said with a tender smile, recalling one of her early hospice patients who was quietly slipping away. “I played ‘Ring of Fire’ for her and she opened her eyes and smiled, and told me and her son that she’d gone to see Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis in concert when she was 14 years old. After that, whenever I played Johnny Cash, she would open her eyes and give us these little snippets of her life.”

Tess Fogarty, whose aunt Nancy Fogarty, Ph.D., was a longtime client of Omaha Music Therapy following her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, said that sometimes her aunt would fall asleep to the music, while other times she got involved. “Nancy always had a smile on her face, but when she saw Emily, she had an extra smile. My daughter used to say that her eyes would get glittery.”

Fogarty said that music therapy was as beneficial for the family as it was for Nancy. “Emily was a critical member of the care team. She would email us after each session and let us know what Nancy was responding to and what she wasn’t. She helped Nancy in 1,000 different ways, but she helped us, too.”

Sometimes, that help comes in unexpected forms. Wadhams recalled one such time, playing at the bedside of a hospice patient, surrounded by the lady’s family who were passing around tissue boxes and crying. “I had never met this patient and I didn’t know anything about her, so I asked if they could tell me any of her favorite songs. One of her kids said, ‘Do you know “Purple People Eater”?’ It told me so much about her. [The patient] was someone who loved to laugh and wanted there to be laughter in her final moments. So that’s what we sang.”

Because laughter and music are medicine.

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This article first appeared in the July/August 2020 edition of 60PLUS in Omaha MagazineTo receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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