Senior center sings praises of KU music therapy program

For years, Kansas University music therapy students have traveled to the Lawrence Senior Center to hone their skills.

“It’s a fun opportunity for the seniors,” KU music therapy chairwoman Alicia Clair said. But, “there’s probably not a lot of music therapy going on.”

They are students, after all, not yet certified professionals.

But Barbara Little isn’t worried.

The senior center’s adult day program manager knows the students brighten seniors’ days.

“They go away with that feeling: I had a really good day,” Little said.

Music therapists – which these students may become – typically work with patients as a traditional therapist would. In clinics and specialized centers, music therapists use tunes to help organize the motor center of the brain that makes walking and talking possible.

The musical sessions at the center last an hour every Monday morning. The students participate as part of their practicum in the department, but the seniors are there, Little said, because the music helps them work through often debilitating disorders.

Some have physical problems, Little said. The music helps them regain timing and mobility.

Some suffer dementia or other memory problems. The music, she said, simply leaves them with a smile on their face, the feeling like they’ve broken away from their disorder, if only for an hour, to experience something more.

“Maybe they can’t express what they got from it,” Little said, “but they know they enjoy it.”

The seniors sing along, play instruments and enjoy the music of their youth, with students trained chiefly in classical music leading the way. And regardless of students’ experience level, this, Clair said, is what music therapy is about.

“The music helps them reach a nonmusical goal,” she said.

For the 15 weekly participants in the program, the music helps them extend themselves in ways that daily life wouldn’t otherwise allow.

For example, Clair said, a person who has suffered a stroke may have myriad problems, including difficulty walking and speaking.

The music can help both problems, she said. Singing helps stretch the vocal range, aiding in traditional speech therapy. And the rhythm helps get people back on their feet.