The more relaxed a person is, the better he’s able to function. That seems simple enough. Tension has a way of locking people up, making it hard for them to focus and communicate.
But for people living with a neurodegenerative disorder, such as Huntington’s, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease, tension can exacerbate their condition, making it essential for them to find relief and better connect with others. Music and art therapy have been shown to do just that.
Neurodegenerative diseases are progressive disorders that erode people’s cognitive functioning and physical abilities, robbing them of their ability to focus, control their bodies and connect with others. For instance, many people with such diseases experience involuntary, jerky movements, such as chorea, the onset of which is associated with Huntington’s disease or fasciculations, which is muscle contractions of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).
Communication is a problem for many people with neurodegenerative disorders. Some manage through personalized forms of oral expression. Others communicate in adaptive ways, like small eye movements. Often, those affected are frustrated by their inability to communicate well or master their physical bodies, leaving them feeling frustrated, tense, and locked-in.
Music and art therapies can help alleviate locked-in syndrome by reducing stress and providing a means of communication and connection with others.
A 2006 study done by the National Center for Biotechnology Information titled Neurophysiology and Neurobiology of the Musical Experience showed that musical stimulation has been linked to the activation of brain pathways associated with emotions, along with a possible associations to biochemical mediators such as ‘feel good’ endorphins, endocannabinoids, and dopamine. Rising evidence also shows that music therapy may be useful in clinical treatments of neurological and psychiatric disorders.
For some people diagnosed with neurodegenerative diseases, music therapy helps unlock their means of self-expression. By creating, singing, moving, or listening to music, people’s cognitive, physical, and/or emotional states may be heightened. For instance, music therapist Maggie Rothwell, creates songs by piecing together the words and poems of our center’s residents, which she sings with them as she plays her guitar.
Music also can be a mood enhancer, putting people at ease. Creating or listening to music often triggers memories that allow people to escape back to a time when they had more control of themselves, a phenomenon that puts many people at ease.
Music therapy can be tailored to each individual’s personality and needs, where, for instance, a person that connects with Bon Jovi’s rocking songs might find himself naturally moving to the beat, benefiting his physical well-being. Singing, creating, and listening to music also unites people through shared participation and experiences, making them a great way for friends and families to connect and communicate.
Art therapy also helps people living with neurodegenerative disorders. Giving them the opportunity to create and express themselves through art provides individuals with a sense of accomplishment and completion. It also serves as a means for physical and occupational efforts through motions like grasping, as when holding art tools, and controlling motor movements, as for stenciling, painting and other art projects, as well as working on things like following tasks, eye/hand coordination, and cognitive processing. Moreover, a grip on a tool can be enlarged, fisted or modified in another way for a more therapeutic effect, or better control of the tool by the user. Creating art projects provides a sense of focus that benefits cognitive abilities and the means to work toward a goal, in addition to being enjoyable.
Storytelling and writing are other art-related activities that have therapeutic effects and can be furthered through participation in meaningful activities. Not only do shared activities support relationships, but also, chronicling about them in a diary and talking about past happenings boosts a person’s ability to reminisce, thereby furthering cognitive function.
Some activities, such as trips to a river-front park and leaf-peeping ventures, incorporate scenic beauty, a double bonus since the ventures encourage camaraderie among trip participants and provide opportunities for them to connect with nature. Such trips also instill memories that can be re-created in an art project.
It’s something to see the joy in someone’s face when a memory is evoked. And it’s something more to see a person open up during or after a music or art therapy session. But even better is knowing that through music or art, that person has found a way to express himself.